We now know that tracking and identifying people, both by determining their positions through their cellphones and recognizing their faces, is not only consistently possible but is almost as accurate as by getting their DNA. How can public policy and individual choices combine to minimize the destructive privacy loss it is causing?
This is not an easy situation to negotiate. Some problems include the disadvantages of passing laws which do not prevent force, fraud, or coercion, the right of people to opt for what they want, and impeding generally beneficial law enforcement information access. Yet we cannot do nothing.
Accordingly, I recommend the following.
First, as with the highly successful National Do Not Call Registry, provide the right for people to opt out from having their phones tracked and their faces compared with others. The effort can be structured in much the same way as this facility, which has cut back, maybe by a factor of ten, what would otherwise be daily junk-phone-call bombardment, with easy online signup, long open opt-in times, and enough of a grace period to allow organizations receiving facial and location data to incorporate their own screening systems.
Second, extend the same restrictions to cellphone tower data that we have on landline telephone wiretapping, for private as well as governmental users.
Third, ban sharing of any location data collected by smartphone apps. If they need it to function themselves, such as for reporting the weather, they can use it without passing it along.
Fourth, hold a national referendum on where the border should be between data acceptable for collection by law enforcement agencies and that which should be private, and implement laws and restrictions accordingly. The results of that countrywide, not state-by-state, vote will direct us toward how we deal with facial recognition.
Fifth, publicize the need for people to make informed choices about their cellphones, mobile applications, and opt-ins. Susceptibility to manipulation can be controlled as much as the exploitation itself, and the power of tracking technology is no excuse for Americans to act like sheep.
If these changes were implemented the marketplace would respond. With their income sources from sharing data removed, apps might need to charge nominal amounts. Others could pay users for facial identification, if that remained legal. A sales point for telephone companies using improved technology could be to make their devices personally unidentifiable.
None of these changes would be radical or would measurably hurt our lives. They would merely end, as put in the January 26th New York Times special-section-ending editorial, “the incongruity between the robust legal regime around legacy methods of privacy invasion and the paucity of regulation around more comprehensive and intrusive modern technologies.”
The worst abuse possibilities of tracking information have not yet materialized – but, as we have seen in this series, neither the laws nor the technology’s current state can prevent them. That is why we need action as quickly as possible. I hope that the facts about surveillance are spread widely, and that our legislators start discussions soon. If not, we may end up all living thoroughly public lives. That is not what we want.