The Times and other news organizations have reported on smartphone tracking in the past. But never with a data set so large. Even still, this file represents just a small slice of what’s collected and sold every day by the location tracking industry — surveillance so omnipresent in our digital lives that it now seems impossible for anyone to avoid.
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.
“The seduction of these consumer products is so powerful that it blinds us to the possibility that there is another way to get the benefits of the technology without the invasion of privacy. But there is,” said William Staples, founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. “All the companies collecting this location information act as what I have called Tiny Brothers, using a variety of data sponges to engage in everyday surveillance.”
In this and subsequent articles we’ll reveal what we’ve found and why it has so shaken us. We’ll ask you to consider the national security risks the existence of this kind of data creates and the specter of what such precise, always-on human tracking might mean in the hands of corporations and the government. We’ll also look at legal and ethical justifications that companies rely on to collect our precise locations and the deceptive techniques they use to lull us into sharing it.
Today, it’s perfectly legal to collect and sell all this information. In the United States, as in most of the world, no federal law limits what has become a vast and lucrative trade in human tracking. Only internal company policies and the decency of individual employees prevent those with access to the data from, say, stalking an estranged spouse or selling the evening commute of an intelligence officer to a hostile foreign power.
Companies say the data is shared only with vetted partners. As a society, we’re choosing simply to take their word for that, displaying a blithe faith in corporate beneficence that we don’t extend to far less intrusive yet more heavily regulated industries. Even if these companies are acting with the soundest moral code imaginable, there’s ultimately no foolproof way they can secure the data from falling into the hands of a foreign security service. Closer to home, on a smaller yet no less troubling scale, there are often few protections to stop an individual analyst with access to such data from tracking an ex-lover or a victim of abuse.
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