Do you know you are being tracked?
If you carry a smartphone, you are probably at least vaguely aware of that. But do you understand the extent? How about the number of times each day your location is determined and recorded? Do you know how far back in time this data is stored? Do you realize how wide-open are the laws on using such information?
The discouragingly negative answers to these questions and many more were recently published over two January days in The New York Times. First was a guest opinion piece released on the 24th, “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Per Zuboff, facility for the current situation started in 1997 when a group of “tech industry executives” persuaded the Federal Trade Commission not to regulate Internet data use and collection. Since then, most Americans have consented to carry devices which, through not only connections with towers which allow them to work but applications they install, monitor their locations. The largest computer-related services companies, specifically Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, all collect or use customer location data, the former more than the latter.
The key area of questions on location data accumulation centers around its detrimentality. Is it harmful now? If not, will the harm happen later? What is the difference between using and abusing this information? A fourth question, on whether it is truly only aggregated and not individually identifiable, was answered comprehensively in the articles to follow.
Zuboff tied in her title with a scary quote from a “scientist,” that “we are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.” Preliminary tests, including getting people to visit the likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks, and targeting online advertising based on their targets’ assessed moods, started years ago. She saw a problem of “epistemic inequality,” or “unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales,” which is “best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us.”
Two days later the Times published a 12-page special section titled “One Nation, Tracked.” It contained seven articles, four with maps showing actual smartphone location readouts, and ended with an editorial. The first, “12 Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy,” showed how data from one device could easily indicate the owner’s home and workplace, along with places they had visited, ranging from pedestrian, such as local grocery stores, to deeply private, for example a drug rehab center. One set of maps here showed hundreds of pings from one phone, of which “connecting” them “reveals a diary of a person’s life.”
The second piece, “How to Track the President,” indicated how easy it was to identify Donald Trump’s smartphone and showed exactly where and when he was one day, the same available for Secret Service agents. Third, “Freaked Out? Steps to Protect Your Phone” offered ideas, but none would stop surveillance through tower connections. Fourth, “Eyes on the Capital,” mostly a large map of that area, showed how much information was available on people in the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, F.B.I. Headquarters, and elsewhere. Even the C.I.A., which apparently blocked smartphone connections within its main building, had plenty of identifiable ones in its parking lot.
From there, “How Your Phone Betrays Democracy” described the problems of being able to electronically identify protestors. “Smartphones Are Spies. Here’s Whom They Report To” presented how applications, such as weather and mapping programs and even games, collect location data and report it to their owners, who have little compunction about collecting it, as “simply by downloading an app and agreeing to the terms of service, you’re potentially exposing your sensitive information to dozens of other technology companies, ad networks, data brokers, and aggregators.” One of them, a weather monitor, “sent the phone’s precise location… about 20 times while it was open during an eight-minute walk.” The seventh article, “Where Even The Children Are Being Tracked” could have referred to everywhere, as such surveillance does not distinguish by age.
The back-page wrap-up, “Total Surveillance Is Not What America Signed Up For,” summarized the findings above and concluded that we “deserve the freedom to choose a life without surveillance.” That won’t be easy.
Next week, I look at what some companies involved with location data collection are doing, what the laws are like now, and what has already happened on the legal front. I will also cover some views on possible, and impossible, solutions. Two weeks from today I will address the best courses of action.