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“Data privacy” is one of those terms that feels stripped of any emotion. It’s like a flat soda. At least until the United States fails to build basic data privacy protections with flesh-and-blood consequences.
This week, a top official in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the US resigned after a news site said that data from his mobile phone showed administrators using the app. LGBTQ dating app Grindr and frequents gay bars. Journalists had access to digital trails and movements data on his cell phone for three years and were able to re-visit the places he had traveled.
I know that people will have mixed feelings about this. Some of you may believe it is acceptable to use any means necessary to determine when a public figure is breaking his word, even if it is a priest with may have broken his vow of celibacy.
However, for me, this is not about a man. This is a structural error that allows real-time data on Americans’ movements in the first place and is used without our knowledge or real consent. This case shows the tangible consequences of the activities of America’s vast and largely unregulated data collection industries.
The reality in the United States is that there are very few laws or other restrictions to prevent companies from compiling the exact location of where we roam and selling that information to anyone. This data is in the hands of companies with which we deal every day, like Facebook and Google, as well as with middlemen who rent out information with which we never directly interact.
This data is often packaged in bulk and is theoretically anonymous, but it can often be traced back to individuals, as the story of Catholic officials shows. The existence of this data in such an absolute volume on almost everybody facilitate misuse that can affect evil and virtuous people.
The Internal Revenue Service purchased commercially available location data from people’s cell phones to track down financial criminals (apparently ineffectively). Defense contractors and US military agencies have obtained location data from apps that people use to pray or hang their shelves. The stalkers found their targets by gathering information about people’s locations from cell phone companies. When Americans go to demonstrations or demonstrations, political campaigns buy information about attendees to target them with messages.
I am very upset that there is still no federal law restricting the collection or use of location data. If I were to present a tech to-do list to Congress, such restrictions would be at the top of my agenda. (I am encouraged by a number of pending congressional proposals and state legislation to limit aspects of personal location data collection or use.)
Most Americans now understand that phones are tracking our movements, even if we don’t necessarily know all the gory details. And I know it’s okay to feel angry resigning or just thinking, “so what?” I want to counter both of those reactions.
Desperation doesn’t help anyone, though that’s how I feel. The loss of control of our data is not inevitable. It’s a choice – or rather a failure over the years for individuals, governments and corporations to think about the consequences of the digital age. Now we can choose another path.
And even if you believe that you and your family have nothing to hide, I suspect that many people would be unhappy if someone followed their children or spouse everywhere they went. What we have now is probably even worse. Maybe thousands of times a day, our phones report our location and we can’t really stop them. (However, here are steps we can take to make it less bad.)
The New York Times editorial board wrote in 2019 that if the U.S. government ordered Americans to provide continuous information about their locations, the public and members of Congress would likely revolt. However, over time, we have collectively and tacitly agreed to hand over this data voluntarily.
We benefit from this location information collection system, including from real-time traffic applications and neighborhood stores that send us coupons. But in return we don’t need to accept permanent and increasingly invasive surveillance of our movements.