Go read this New York Times exposé on smartphone location tracking because it’s worse than you think – The Verge
I read a joke the other day that went something like: your cyberpunk dystopia name is just your actual name because the corporations have already won. Although that’s not really a joke, not if you think about it for too long. We do live in an era of unbridled corporate power, power that’s also captured about half the government and the presidency. Today, The New York Times Opinion section published the introductory piece in a series on smartphone location tracking — a perfectly legal, extremely valuable private industry where apps monitor your precise location without your knowledge — which could easily identify you personally.
“Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files,” write the journalists Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel. “In the cities that the data file covers, it tracks people from nearly every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Va., or luxury towers in Manhattan.” The data exists as dots on a map; longitudes and latitudes that are trivial to associate with specific people when combined with publicly available information (like home addresses). “We followed military officials with security clearances as they drove home at night,” write Thompson and Warzel. “We tracked law enforcement officers as they took their kids to school. We watched high-powered lawyers (and their guests) as they traveled from private jets to vacation properties.”
The fact that this granular dataset even exists — one of many, Warzel and Thompson are careful to note — is a testament to how powerful capitalism is and how the law is slow to catch up to developments in technology. The data came from a private location data company, which are third parties that collect precise location information using software embedded in phone apps. “You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book,” Warzel and Thompson write. “They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.”
Smartphones have been around for a while now, but it wasn’t until the introduction of Apple’s early iPhones — which debuted at relatively accessible price points and made the smartphone seem like a device that wasn’t limited to business customers — that the public began to expect phones with online features. It also introduced the convenience / surveillance tradeoff: your phone could do wondrous things, if only you’d agree to an interminably long sheet of terms and conditions (and enable location services). I never felt really comfortable with where that data might be going. But at the same time, the question was so abstract it was hard to care, at least in the moment. Everyone feels secure until they find out they’ve been pwned.
As the Times story notes, the companies that collect this precise location data — a roster of unfamiliar names, aside from Foursquare — justify it by saying the practice is anonymous, the data collected is secure, and that people have consented to its collection. All of those claims are false. To prove it, Warzel and Thompson got in touch with individuals they’d identified in the dataset they were given. What’s more: the authors were working with an attenuated dataset. Firms, they write, typically use other sources of information along with location data. That includes mobile advertising IDs, which are combined with demographic information to create the detailed profiles needed to target ads.
“The data can change hands in almost real time, so fast that your location could be transferred from your smartphone to the app’s servers and exported to third parties in milliseconds,” Warzel and Thompson write. “This is how, for example, you might see an ad for a new car some time after walking through a dealership.” And then: “That data can then be resold, copied, pirated and abused. There’s no way you can ever retrieve it.”
That brings me to the most outrageous part of this whole story: the byzantine and perfectly legal machinery of surveillance, constructed in plain sight, is all about advertising. We are being tracked every second of every day by our smartphones, and the whole point is to get people to buy more stuff; the point is to make the people running the system wealthier.
The Times story ends with a litany of questions, all of which ask the same basic things: is this justifiable in service of profits? And if more people knew exactly what they were giving up when they agreed to a new set of terms and conditions, would they?
I think the answer to both is a resounding “no.” Our phones are watching us, that much we know, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Privacy isn’t a luxury good. It’s a right, as inalienable as the ones held self-evident in the US Constitution. “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,” Warzel and Thompson write. And yet we do, in order to see new kinds of posts.
The leftist writer Malcolm Harris recently published a piece in the MIT Technology Review that laid out a persuasive case that Gen Z will have it worse than any generation that came before it, largely because the last 400-odd years of capitalism have immiserated all but a relative few. Harris quotes the economist John Maynard Keynes who theorized that the capitalist system could only last around 450 years:
The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.
Indeed. The relentless pursuit of profit has killed the planet and brought us fully into the cyberpunk dystopia that captured the imaginations of so many in the ‘80s. What’s comforting, though, at least in terms of location data brokers, is that we’ve already taken the first step toward fixing the problem: Warzel and Thompson have named it. Now the real work begins.
Go read Warzel and Thompson’s piece in The New York Times for more chilling details. You’re not just a dot on a map.