Avoiding The Surveillance Machine

July 14, 2012

I don’t own a cell phone or a smart phone or any sort of system like it.  I never have.  I have never felt any need to stay that much in touch with others.  Since the invention of the telephone, we spent generations happily walking away from our house and office phones knowing that anyone who really needs to be in contact will call again; knowing the luxury of freedom from the ringing devil; knowing that the genuine need for instant contact is extraordinarily rare.

My distaste for cell phones was heightened whenever I watched a cop show on TV and the officers ordered up cell phone records to track criminals, suspects or, even, perfectly innocent people who had simply chosen to go missing. (How they could do that without any form of warrant was an additional issue.)

Now, my thoughts have been vindicated by an excellent article in The New York Times by Peter Maass and Megha Rajogopalan who argue that “smart phones” should more accurately be called “trackers” because that is their real function in life.

Mr. Ohm labels them tracking devices. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously. Scholars have called them minicomputers and robots. Everyone is struggling to find the right tag, because “cellphone” and “smartphone” are inadequate. This is not a semantic game. Names matter, quite a bit. In politics and advertising, framing is regarded as essential because what you call something influences what you think about it …

Most doubts about the principal function of these devices were erased when it was recently disclosed that cellphone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data. That’s not even a complete count, because T-Mobile, one of the largest carriers, refused to reveal its numbers.

It appears that millions of cellphone users have been swept up in government surveillance of their calls and where they made them from. Many police agencies don’t obtain search warrants when requesting location data from carriers.

Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. In just the past few years, cellphone companies have honed their geographic technology, which has become almost pinpoint. The surveillance and privacy implications are quite simple. If someone knows exactly where you are, they probably know what you are doing.

What’s the harm?

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruling about the use of tracking devices by the police, noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person “is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.” Even the most gregarious of sharers might not reveal all that on Facebook …

New researchsuggests that by cross-referencing your geographical data with that of your friends, it’s possible to predict your future whereabouts with a much higher degree of accuracy. This is what’s known as predictive modeling, and it requires nothing more than your cellphone data.

Perhaps you don’t mind if the Government and corporations know exactly what you are doing every moment of the day.  Perhaps you think that knowing the ballgame score immediately is worth it.  I don’t and I strongly advise everyone to throw away their cell phones and get on with life as we all did until about a dozen years ago.  If you really need to have a phone while you walk down the street or go to the can, pay cash for a burner and throw it away when used.