NYT investigates location tracking; there really is No Place to Hide, and no time to waste

The phrase “killer app” is overused. In truth, during the decades since the invention of the personal computer, there have been precious few killer apps.  Spreadsheets. Email.  The web browser.

And this decade: mobile phone location tracking. Quibble with me on semantics if you want: location tracking, isn’t an ‘app,’ it only enables other killer apps like Uber. But I’ll argue with you, because location tracking is a killer app for corporations; it’s also the biggest privacy killer we’ve ever invented.

Location tracking didn’t get off to a great start. When Facebook introduced location features earlier this decade, there were loud protests from users.  So, Facebook simply tracked users more quietly.  The firm had to explain this data hoarding to Congress this week.  Ho-hum. So far, getting called to the principal’s office hasn’t really changed Facebook’s attitude.

New York Times writer Charlie Warzel co-authored a remarkable story that published Thursday. The Times obtained billions of data points from a firm that hoards cell phone location information and stitched it all together for us.  A lot is going on in the news right now, so you might miss it. You shouldn’t.

As Alia Tavakolian and I have been preaching in our No Place To Hide podcast, privacy is a tricky concept. The word itself is inadequate to describe what it means to us, to our humanity, to our relationships, to our freedom.

Click to hear our podcast, or listen at Stitcher or at iTunes

It’s also easy to miss the big picture when you are getting those cheap, magically efficient rides home from the pub at night — admittedly a far superior thing than the temptation to drive yourself home.  Uber knows where you are. So does your cell phone company. So do dozens of other service providers in the middle.  They know where you are all the time. Forever.  And there are virtually no rules around what they can do with this information.

Fortunately, Warzel and co-author Stuart Thompson, armed with big data, elegantly paint the big picture for us. If someone knows where your phone is, they know where you sleep at night, where you go to work, what you do on vacations, and so on.  The story has numerous frightening examples, but here’s one: The Times was able to identify a defense department official and his wife as they walked around the Women’s March protest in Washington D.C.

From the story:

It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the powers such always-on surveillance can provide an authoritarian regime like China’s. Within America’s own representative democracy, citizens would surely rise up in outrage if the government attempted to mandate that every person above the age of 12 carry a tracking device that revealed their location 24 hours a day. Yet, in the decade since Apple’s App Store was created, Americans have, app by app, consented to just such a system run by private companies. Now, as the decade ends, tens of millions of Americans, including many children, find themselves carrying spies in their pockets during the day and leaving them beside their beds at night — even though the corporations that control their data are far less accountable than the government would be.

As I’ve said, privacy is a squishy term. Unfortunately, I think other, far smaller privacy debates of the past — cookie tracking, or credit card hacking, for example — have softened us up for this moment. Always on location tracking, with no guardrails around the data’s collection or use, is a clear and present danger. As privacy violations go, tt’s leaps and bounds worse than other technologies we’ve argued about in the past.

I’d urge you to read the Times piece.  Then I’d also urge you to listen to our No Place To Hide special podcast series. A theme you will hear in the three episodes we’ve released so far is this: New technologies promise amazing, life-giving results.  If someone I loved was stuck on a mountain, I would want a cell phone to beam out his precise location for rescuers.  But digital toxic waste, like the leak of such intimate personal information, might very well convince my beloved family member to turn off location tracking, leading to his death. That’s a terrible outcome

So many tech innovations are like this. We risk losing out on decades of wonderful things tech can do for us — cancer cures, safety devices, communication wonders — because we are mishandling the potential for abuse.  There’s No Place to Hide, and there’s no time to waste.

Click to hear our podcast, or listen at Stitcher or at iTunes


About Bob Sullivan 1452 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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