Look, I get it. I don’t blame you for wanting to tune out. We’re assaulted by bad news. Our political system is in chaos, we’re doing indescribable damage to the climate, we have no privacy, there are cameras and trackers and lions and tigers and bears. It’s too much.
Take a deep breath. Relax. I’m not going to tell you stories about a dystopian nightmare, at least not entirely. It’s kind of a good news / bad news story. The nature of privacy is evolving. For better or for worse, we live in a world where we are continuously surveilled. Okay, to be honest, some of the stories will be scary. But you’ll breathe more easily with some perspective, because it’s easy to forget how much we also benefit from this new technology.
When the issue is privacy, one common rationalization for tuning out is: “I have nothing to hide. I’m not important, I’m not a journalist, I don’t know any national secrets. No one will take the trouble to use my data against me, even if theoretically some company knows my personal details and my location. What could be the harm?”
There’s some truth to that! If you’re living a good life with no dark corners, you’re not as much at risk as people are who will feel embarrassed or invaded if personal secrets are exposed.
Still, you should understand how data about you is collected even if you have an unblemished life and no secrets. It will help you deal with the creepy feeling when Facebook shows you an ad for treatment of some condition while you’re sitting in the waiting room to see the doctor for that condition. Privacy issues are going to be debated for years – if you’re informed, you’ll be better equipped to cut through the rhetoric about policy and regulation.
Like it or not, you don’t have the option to hide from sight. Many companies are engaged in the “slow, steady, relentless accumulation of relatively mundane data points about how we live our lives,” as EFF puts it.
“This includes things like browsing history, app usage, purchases, and geolocation data. These humble parts can be combined into an exceptionally revealing whole. Trackers assemble data about our clicks, impressions, taps, and movement into sprawling behavioral profiles . . .”
Once that data is gathered, companies use AI and machine learning to analyze the giant sets of numbers and to update their knowledge of you almost instantaneously as your location changes.
Your location, measured inch by inch, second by second, can be used to improve the world. Perhaps it helps apps display more accurate reports about traffic, benefiting all the people on the same road. Or maybe it’s used specifically for your benefit by your bank to prevent your credit card from being used somewhere you’re not visiting. Maybe your location is used to show you ads that are relevant to you because of where you’re walking – and isn’t that better than the usual ads that completely miss the point?
Of course, the same info can be used to cause harm, ranging from exposure of secrets to actual physical injury. I’ll tell you stories about that, too. I’ll try to give you trigger warnings so you can look away if you’d rather not know.
Your location, your movement through the world, reveals more about you than almost anything else collected by the tech companies. Location data is “anonymized,” but that is barely a technicality. Imagine that you have anonymous records tracking the location of a million cell phones. There is one and only one phone that travels every day between your home and your office. It’s trivial to match the machine ID of that phone to the home address and occupation info in your profile – and now the movement of that phone is linked to you forever.
The New York Times obtained location data from readily available sources and analyzed it to see what could be learned. Here’s an example. This could be you.
“One path leaves a house in upstate New York at 7 a.m. and travels to a middle school 14 miles away, staying until late afternoon each school day. Only one person makes that trip: Lisa Magrin, a 46-year-old math teacher. Her smartphone goes with her. An app on the device gathered her location information, which was then sold without her knowledge. It recorded her whereabouts as often as every two seconds, according to a database of more than a million phones in the New York area that was reviewed by The New York Times. While Ms. Magrin’s identity was not disclosed in those records, The Times was able to easily connect her to that dot. The app tracked her as she went to a Weight Watchers meeting and to her dermatologist’s office for a minor procedure. It followed her hiking with her dog and staying at her ex-boyfriend’s home, information she found disturbing.”
In the next article, I’ll tell you about how location data is collected and who gets it. Only a few sources of location data are under your control. Then we’ll look at some of the ways that the world is improved because companies and government agencies know where you are.
Finally, we’ll consider some of the ways that this information can be abused and why the surveillance state is incredibly scary and why we should all leave civilization and live in the woods. You can skip that one.
But don’t close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears yet. Stay tuned for a little while.