[Q&A] Cell phones’ ability to track their users’ movements in detail is a threat to privacy.
Buyer, beware! That fancy new smartphone might allow your cellphone company to collect and store information you thought was kept private. Cellphone providers have been less than forthcoming about the kind of personal information they are collecting, including, worrisomely, detailed information about your physical location.
What exactly is “location tracking”? Are our cellphones monitoring us?
With the onset of many new technologies, information about our physical location is becoming available to all sorts of third parties through what is referred to as “location tracking.” As we move throughout the day, there are a host of things that help create a geographical map of where we are at any given time. Everything from where we use our credit cards to the GPS or transponder in our automobiles contributes to this map. Our cellphones, however, have become of principal concern, operating essentially as locator beacons that we carry around in our pockets.
Understandably, cellphone companies need to know where we are in relation to transmission towers in order to provide their services. The worrisome questions we must ask are: What kind of information are cellphone companies collecting on us, and why? And, is this information being used or shared in a manner that infringes on our privacy rights?
Companies such as Apple and Google are reportedly engaged in the monitoring and collection of information through cellphones. Why is this activity problematic, and what are the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) key concerns?
Currently, most consumers are largely unaware of what kind of information their cellphone providers are collecting – through the devices themselves, or through applications. The recent iPhone 4 and Android controversies provide great examples of the issues at stake. For instance, it turns out that the iPhone 4 logs a list of locations where its users have been, and then stores that information in a file on users’ phones. While it’s perhaps not surprising that the iPhone is able to tell where it’s located, many people have been shocked to find out that information about their whereabouts is being kept and stored, and, more importantly, that they were never informed about it.
It is disconcerting that cellphone companies have gone about their activity in this very opaque way. Even if users have voluntarily given companies access to their information or whereabouts when, for example, they have purchased an application or used a social-networking site like Twitter, they often have little knowledge of what these companies are using that information for.
Consumers are exposing a lot of personal information about themselves, and it is important that this information is handled in a clear and transparent manner so it does not end up infringing on consumer and citizen rights.
From the standpoint of safeguarding our civil liberties, what are the chief threats that this location tracking poses?
There is a host of pressing threats to privacy rights from location tracking. In the United States, for example, there are increasing attempts by law enforcement agencies to get information from cellphone companies about customer locations without proper warrants. Using various governmental “request for information” procedures, some law enforcement agencies are getting around the probable cause standard that is mandated in order to get a warrant for a search. These kinds of worrisome activities are confounded by the fact that many privacy laws in the U.S. were created in the 1980s and are in dire need of an update. Laws must be upgraded to account for our 21st-century technologies in order to better protect citizens against new threats to their privacy.
Another threat that arises from the cellphone tracking phenomena has to do with civil litigants. When a data trail is created, the possibility of that trail becoming accessible to hackers, or to the broader public, is very real. If you are in a dispute with an insurance company, for example, or in a divorce or custody battle with a spouse, location tracking might come into play in ways you’d never thought it could. There have now been instances where data from toll transponders has been subpoenaed in court and used as evidence in divorce cases.
In light of these threats, what can individuals do to better protect their personal information?
Right now, unfortunately, the onus is on the consumer to take the initiative and be wary. This “buyer beware” approach is clearly not the best answer. The iPhone 4 location log case should motivate us to question why Apple and other cellphone carriers have not been forthcoming and transparent.
One thing that was apparent from the backlash over the iPhone log was that people really care about their privacy. Apple has been subject to several weeks of very critical stories. If companies continue to fail to protect and respect consumer privacy, they are going to suffer in the marketplace. While there is clearly room in the marketplace for devices and applications that engineer in privacy considerations, there needs to be better protection of consumer privacy under the law.