The nightmare of our nosy phones


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“Data privacy” is one of those terms that feels stripped of all emotion. It’s like a flat soda. At least until America’s failure to put in place even basic data privacy protections has real repercussions.

This week, a senior official in the U.S. hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church resigned after a news site said he had data from his cell phone that appeared to show the administrator was using the app. Grindr LGBTQ dating and regularly went to gay bars. Journalists had access to travel data and digital traces from his mobile phone for three years and were able to trace his movements.

I know people will have complex feelings about this. Some of you may believe that it is okay to use any means necessary to determine when a public figure is breaking his promises, including when it is a priest who may have broken his vow of celibacy.

For me, however, it’s not just one man. This is a structural flaw that allows real-time data on the movements of Americans to exist in the first place and be used without our knowledge or without our true consent. This case shows the tangible consequences of the practices of America’s vast, largely unregulated data collection industries.

The reality in the United States is that there are few legal or other restrictions to prevent businesses from compiling the precise locations of our trips and selling that information to anyone. This data is in the hands of companies with which we deal on a daily basis, such as Facebook and Google, as well as rental information intermediaries with whom we never interact directly.

This data is often packaged in bulk and is in theory anonymous, but it can often be traced back to individuals, as the history of the Catholic official shows. The existence of these data in such a volume on practically everyone creates the conditions for misuse that can affect the wicked as well as the virtuous.

The Internal Revenue Service purchased commercially available location data from cell phones to (seemingly inefficiently) track down financial criminals. U.S. defense contractors and military agencies have obtained location data from apps that people use to pray or hang up their shelves. The stalkers found targets by obtaining information about people’s locations from mobile phone companies. When Americans go to rallies or demonstrations, political campaigns buy information about attendees to target them with messages.

I am exasperated that there are still no federal laws restricting the collection or use of location data. If I made a tech to-do list for Congress, such restrictions would be high on my agenda. (I am encouraged by some of the proposals from Congress and pending state legislation to restrict certain aspects of the collection or use of personal location data.)

Most Americans now understand that our phones follow our movements, although we don’t necessarily know all the gory details. And I know how easy it can be to feel angry resignation or just think “so what? I want to resist both of these reactions.

Desperation doesn’t help anyone, although that is what I often feel too. Losing control of our data was not inevitable. It was a choice – or rather a failure over the years by individuals, governments and businesses to reflect on the consequences of the digital age. We can now choose a different path.

And even if you think you and your family have nothing to hide, I suspect a lot of people would get pissed off if someone followed their teenager or spouse wherever they went. What we have now may be worse. Potentially thousands of times a day, our phones are reporting our locations, and we can’t really stop them. (Still, here are steps we can take to alleviate the hell.)

The New York Times editorial board wrote in 2019 that if the U.S. government ordered Americans to provide constant information about their locations, the public and members of Congress would likely revolt. Yet, slowly over time, we have collectively and tacitly agreed to voluntarily transmit this data.

We take advantage of this tracking system, including real-time traffic apps and nearby stores that send us coupons. But we should not have to accept in return the perpetual and increasingly intrusive surveillance of our movements.

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