The nightmare of our sniffing phones


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“Data protection” is one of those terms that feel deprived of any emotion. It’s like a flat lemonade. At least until America’s failure to provide even basic data protection becomes flesh-and-blood.

A top official in the American hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church this week resigned after a news site said it had data from his cell phone that seemed to show that the admin uses the LGBTQ dating app Grindr and goes to gay bars on a regular basis. Journalists had access to data on the movements and digital traces of his cell phone for parts of three years and were able to trace his whereabouts.

I know people are going to have complex feelings about this. Some of you may believe that it is acceptable to use whatever means necessary to determine when a public figure is breaking promises, including when it is a priest who has broken celibacy.

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

The reality in the United States is that there are few legal or other restrictions preventing companies from compiling the exact locations of our roaming and selling that information to third parties. This data is in the hands of companies we deal with on a daily basis, such as Facebook and Google, and also information brokers with whom we never interact directly.

These data are often packaged and are in large quantities theoretically anonymous, but it can often be traced back to individualsas the story of the Catholic official shows. The existence of this data in such sheer quantity is practical everyone creates the conditions for an abuse that affects the evil and virtuous alike.

The Internal Revenue Service has Purchased commercially available location data from cell phones Hunt down (apparently ineffective) financial criminals. US Defense companies and military authorities received location data from apps people use to pray or hang their shelves. Stalkers have found targets by getting information about the location of people from cell phone companies. When Americans go Rallies or Protests, political campaigns buy information about the participants in order to target them with messages.

I am upset that there are still no federal laws restricting the collection or use of location data. If I were to make a tech to-do list for Congress, such restrictions would be high on my agenda. (I am encouraged by some of the Congress proposals and pending Status Laws restricting aspects of the collection or use of personal location information.)

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

Hopelessness doesn’t help anyone, although I often feel the same way. Losing control of our data wasn’t inevitable. It was a decision – or rather, a year-long failure of individuals, governments, and corporations to think through the consequences of the digital age. We can now choose another path.

And even if you think that you and your family have nothing to hide, I suspect that many people would be unsettled if someone followed their teenager or spouse anywhere. What we have now may be worse. Potentially thousands of times a day, our phones report our locations and we can’t really stop them. (Still there are Steps We Can Take to mitigate hell.)

The editorial staff of the New York Times wrote in 2019 that the public and members of Congress would likely revolt if the U.S. government had ordered Americans to continually provide information about their locations. Over time, however, we have collectively and tacitly agreed to hand over this data voluntarily.

We take advantage of this location harvesting system including real-time traffic apps and nearby stores that send us coupons. But we shouldn’t have to accept constant and increasingly invasive monitoring of our movements in return.

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