In an analysis at the New York Times, Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan (reporters on digital privacy for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom), discuss how cellphone are being used to track individuals and invade their privacy:
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. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.
We have all heard about the wonders of frictionless sharing, whereby social networks automatically let our friends know what we are reading or listening to, but what we hear less about is frictionless surveillance. Though we invite some tracking — think of our mapping requests as we try to find a restaurant in a strange part of town — much of it is done without our awareness. […]
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. Cellular systems constantly check and record the location of all phones on their networks — and this data is particularly treasured by police departments and online advertisers. Cell companies typically retain your geographic information for a year or longer, according to data gathered by the Justice Department.
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.
Find out more information in the full article.