[FoRK] That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker.

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Jul 16 02:09:56 PDT 2012


That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker.


THE device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone — guess
again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let’s stop calling
them phones. They are trackers.

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

“Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new
services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the
thoughts of their customers,” writes Paul Ohm, a law professor at the
University of Colorado. “These invasive services have proved irresistible to
consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones)
studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet.”

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. That’s why there are
battles over the tags “Obamacare” and “death panels.”

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

There is an even more fascinating and diabolical element to what can be done
with location information. New research suggests 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.

If we are naïve to think of them as phones, what should we call them? Eben
Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, argues that they are robots
for which we — the proud owners — are merely the hands and feet. “They see
everything, they’re aware of our position, our relationship to other human
beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us,” he
has said. Over time, we’ve used these devices less for their original
purpose. A recent survey by O2, a British cell carrier, showed that making
calls is the fifth-most-popular activity for smartphones; more popular uses
are Web browsing, checking social networks, playing games and listening to
music. Smartphones are taking over the functions that laptops, cameras,
credit cards and watches once performed for us.

If you want to avoid some surveillance, the best option is to use cash for
prepaid cellphones that do not require identification. The phones transmit
location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you
call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just
drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you. These
cellphones, known as burners, are the threads that connect privacy activists,
Burmese dissidents and coke dealers.

Prepaids are a hassle, though. What can the rest of us do? Leaving your
smartphone at home will help, but then what’s the point of having it? Turning
it off when you’re not using it will also help, because it will cease pinging
your location to the cell company, but are you really going to do that?
Shutting it down does not even guarantee it’s off — malware can keep it on
without your realizing it. The only way to be sure is to take out the
battery. Guess what? If you have an iPhone, you will need a tiny screwdriver
to remove the back cover. Doing that will void your warranty.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University
of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about these issues and believes we
are confronted with two choices: “Don’t have a cellphone or just accept that
you’re living in the Panopticon.”

There is another option. People could call them trackers. It’s a neutral
term, because it covers positive activities — monitoring appointments, bank
balances, friends — and problematic ones, like the government and advertisers
watching us.

We can love or hate these devices — or love and hate them — but it would make
sense to call them what they are so we can fully understand what they do.

Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan are reporters on digital privacy for
ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom.

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