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How Do You Feel About Smartphone Surveillance? Our Readers Respond

(Flickr: scobleizer)

8/7: This post has been updated.

Your cell phone tracks where you go and what you do, revealing details about your life that can prove quite valuable to the government and companies. Last week, we asked you to sound off on whether or not this smartphone surveillance bothers you – and what, if anything, we should do about it. Here are some of our favorite responses, along with commentary from our reporter Megha Rajagopalan. (Some comments have been edited for length.)

Jim

My privacy is important enough to me that I do not have a smartphone. I only carry a cell phone (no data capability) for work, and then only when I am working. It stays home when I am out, otherwise.

Megha: Jim, after we published the article, lots of people made this same comment to me (including my mom, who chastised me for upgrading to a smartphone). But actually, it doesn’t help you that much to have a phone without a data plan. Cell phone companies collect location data from cell towers — which all cell phones use — and that data can be analyzed or turned over to police just like GPS data from a smartphone.

Plus, industry experts told us that location data from cell towers can be almost as precise as GPS, particularly in population dense urban areas. So really, the only way to be 100% sure you’re not being tracked is to throw that phone out or take out the battery.

John

I don’t have a cellphone (other than a prepaid someone insisted I “needed,” which sits in a cabinet), but it’s because it doesn’t fit into my lifestyle. I don’t really have an interest in “being connected,” and I don’t want to carry around a gadget that needs my attention.

However, I’m still dumbfounded and horrified at how the companies and governments ignore the rights of users to be largely left alone.  That concern isn’t limited to phones, of course, since (as mentioned) the same can be said about “reward cards,” ubiquitous security cameras, and so forth.

For those wondering what the big deal is, remember Cardinal Richelieu’s famous quote:  “If you give me six sentences written by the most innocent of men, I will find something in them with which to hang them.”  Also remember the man who learned his wife was pregnant before she did, because Target sent them a congratulatory message based on her recent purchases. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s the article on Target.]

Now imagine what crimes can be “found” with access to your GPS history, call log, text messages, app selection, and contact list, on top of those six sentences.  Would you believe someone was innocent after seeing that they went to an ATM, then parked their next to a known drug dealer for fifteen minutes?  What if the person received a brief call from an accused terrorist?  That can’t just be a wrong number…

Now imagine that the information lands in the hands of someone who might not be entirely trustworthy.  Friends and family on the police force, for example, have told me stories of officers who used police resources to check out their kids’ dates, gather information on spouses during a divorce, and (disturbingly) outright stalk some people.  They’re not the norm, of course, but they exist. 

And those are just people who are authorized (but shouldn’t be without a warrant).  How secure is the information?  Are you sure the police computers aren’t being hacked?  Identity thieves, blackmailers, extortionists, burglars, and other unpleasant folks can surely find something useful in all that data. That makes any collection a huge target.

Megha: This is an important point. If data isn’t held securely, there’s potential for abuse even if police have best of intentions.

Peter O'Donnell

Nothing to hide! ... I want to be safe. If one life is saved, then it is worth my giving the government this.

Megha: We’ve heard that comment a lot, Peter! But not everyone feels that way — those more concerned about their personal privacy might point out that the Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches whether we feel we have something to hide or not.

The big question now is whether phone companies handing over their customers’ location information to the police counts as a search (which would require a warrant). On the other hand, law enforcement authorities have argued that without quick access to location data, it would be tough for them to fight crime as effectively.

Matt D

It always worries me when a commenter voices the, “I’m not doing anything wrong so why should I care,” view. I am highly concerned about our privacy rights here in the states. Slowly and surely we are losing them. It’s one thing to have access to what I’ve written publicly on the internet, it’s another entirely to go searching through my private calls/texts/websites to figure out what I’ve been up to. If the past decade has shown us nothing, it’s that the public sector is rife with corruption, far past the point where our officials can be trusted with our data. Somewhere, Orwell is rolling around in his grave and Huxley is still waiting for big pharma to show up with soma….

Megha: Whatever your opinion of public officials may be, don’t forget we’re not just talking about the government obtaining your cellphone data — much of your personal data is being held onto by the phone companies themselves and used by third party advertisers.

Lance Hernandez

They should at least let you know about those things, before you buy one.

Megha: They actually do to some extent, but quietly  — read the fine print in the agreement you sign with your cell service provider. The language usually says the company will disclose information about you to law enforcement with a valid court order — but you might have to press a little harder to find out exactly how that works in practice.

Joe P

I’m concerned, and I think there should be checks put into places for law enforcement to be able to access these records. However, even if I chose to forgo a smartphone I still use a debit card and customer loyalty cards so I would think without the phone it would still be very easy to track what I do where. I would say I am more concerned over who has access for what reasons than I am that it’s there.

Megha: Joe, my suggestion to you is to read the fine print whenever you sign an agreement — be it with a phone company, a credit card company, or any other business that might be collecting information about your behavior. The agreements usually disclose who (police, advertisers) your information could be passed to, at least in broad strokes. That will give you a clue about who might have access to it.

John Gooby

It is not so much the government constantly tracking us as it is big business. There is money to be made with knowing our movements and our habits. I am no danger to the government, but I am a source of money to businesses.

Megha: This is a really good point. There’s been a lot of talk about what web companies like Facebook and Google might be doing with the information they have on us — but cell phone companies have a really unique trove of data. The people you talk to and the frequency with which they call you can tell them how popular or influential you are in your social circle. The type of phone you have tells them about your disposable income. And your location data can tell them where you like to eat lunch, where you work or go to school, and where you hang out on weekends. Who else has access to all that? That’s certainly a data set that’s interesting and valuable to advertisers.

BlueSun

I think that we need laws and regulations that would make it a criminal offense for providers to collect data on any person or give (or, more commonly, now) sell that data to police agencies without first being served with a warrant obtained from a judge after the police establish probable cause that information obtained from a cellphone is relevant to a crime that has been committed or is being planned.

Megha: A House bill known as the GPS Act would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before obtaining geolocation data from cell carriers; a similar provision is being offered as an amendment to the Senate’s Cybersecurity Act, though that bill was blocked by a filibuster this week.

Rick

Wrapping it in aluminum foil or putting it in a metal case isolates you from having the phone pinged while it is encased.

After wrapping your phone - try calling it from another phone.  Mine never receives the incoming call and, a call in progress is shut down once the phone is wrapped.

Megha: Interesting tip. I’ll have to give it at try.

Update (8/7): Lance

First, in full disclosure, I work for a marketing services company that helps its clients responsibly use personal data ...Throughout history, the relationship between commerce, technology and privacy has been both productive and controversial. With each technological or business innovation regarding the use of personal data, important questions always emerge. Yet, data is increasingly a product, a facilitator, of our modern way of life, and its importance to both individuals and organizations is intensifying. Therefore, the dialogue about data use should be open, calm and holistic.

On the commerce side, particularly regarding digital commerce, research indicates that the overall positive impact of using data has been profound. But the value of data is not limited to commerce. Many live safer, richer, more rewarding lives because business, public service and not-for-profit organizations responsibly use personal data.

Yet, the occasional one-sidedness of the dialogue has created unproductive misperceptions such as "companies collect and sell data to anyone, provide private information to governments, spy on individuals, track their movements, are creepy, evil, terrifying and frightening." One nationally syndicated blogger used the words, "snooping" "sneaky" "bad" "demon" "shadowy" and "slurping" all in one subtitle.

Yes, there are both purposeful bad actors in the use of personal data and those who have simply ignored the little voice that says, "This doesn't feel right," while others have not made data security and privacy a high-enough priority.

What is the answer? I believe it is balance. There is a huge opportunity for personal data, when used in a responsible fashion, to drive commerce and to make lives easier, safer and healthier.

Mr. Steiger, if your writers are truly objective, they will share this with you. And if so, I ask that you please have your writers investigate all sides of this evolving dialogue before publishing again. I think it was the venerable Dorothy Thompson that once said, "There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth."

Megha: I think you make a good point that digital privacy is very much a trade-off — technology like cell phones add convenience to our lives, and in return, we may sacrifice some of our privacy. You are also correct to point out that there are many positive uses of data mining — for instance, the UN uses cell phone data in public health and disaster relief projects.

But people on both sides of the debate agree that it's never before been possible to collect and analyze personal data on this scale, and that creates a potential for abuse that does make some people feel creeped out. Cell phone companies don't always disclose information about their data retention practices, so it is difficult to know if there are purposeful bad actors or not. My co-author Peter Maass and I decided to label cell phones "trackers" because we believe the positive functions of these devices are already quite clear — but the privacy implications are not as obvious.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

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