Smartphones are pretty wonderful. But for a moment, ignore the ability to message family and friends, search the web, and play games, even if it is all thanks to one handy, portable device.
As the old saying goes, “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Whether you paid for your smartphone outright, or have it on contract, there’s a further price to be paid for the conveniences you use. Services can track you through your device.
This is the big one, isn’t it? It’s cause for some to don tin-foil hats and others to actually just use better precautions like burner phones.
Remember the 1998 film, Enemy of the State in which Will Smith is on the run after being framed for murder by National Security Agency (NSA) officers? Smith’s character has to be debugged before the most famous chase scene ensues. Nowadays, he’d have to ditch his cell phone too. Indeed, the NSA wasn’t a huge fan of the movie when it was released, with one official reassuring the public that they’re not the Bad Guys:
“Unfortunately, truth isn’t always as riveting as fiction and creative license may mean that ‘the NSA,’ as portrayed in a given production, bears little resemblance to the place we all work.”
After whistleblower, Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance — including PRISM — many still view the NSA as villains. Those same people will be even more troubled by the fact that your smartphone is giving away your location.
When it searches for Wi-Fi access, your device constantly sends out data, including your Media Access Control (MAC) address – a personal identifier that could be used to determine when you enter and leave a building. Even turning off your Wi-Fi won’t work as your phone will try to connect with cell towers — including fake 2G towers used by the NSA — and that information would be stored by your network provider.
State security services can request such information (and not just in the USA either: thanks to the so-called “Snooper’s Charter,” call and internet data for UK citizens is also stored for at least 12 months), and continually triangulate your position.
By extension, the police can trace your location either in real time or after the event — or at least in some circumstances. Cell site location data is a handy tool in the police’s arsenal: such evidence can prove a suspect was in the vicinity of crime scenes.
As well as tracing smartphone locations using cell towers, law enforcers can use devices that act as a “middle man” between the cell phone and the service providers’ towers. These track a smartphone via its International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), a unique identifier — typically 15-digits — found on all phones that connect to networks, or Electronic Serial Number (ESN).
Such IMSI-catchers can be fitted to cars, airplanes, and helicopters.
The problem is, the law regarding this matter is often a gray area, especially when cases make it to court. It’s up to individual states to determine whether cell site location data can be permissible without a warrant. In some states, like Illinois, New Jersey, and Indiana, a warrant is needed for real-time tracking but not retroactive inspections; in others, including California, Utah, and Montana, police need a warrant for both.
Some states haven’t even made binding decisions. And for much of America, location information is completely unprotected. This worryingly long list includes Washington, Arkansas, New Mexico, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Idaho.
This data could be the cherry on top for a prosecutor, but The New Yorker‘s Douglas Starr says it’s not always so clear-cut:
“Rather than pinpoint a suspect’s whereabouts, cell-tower records can put someone within an area of several hundred square miles or, in a congested urban area, several square miles. Yet years of prosecutions and plea bargains have been based on a misunderstanding of how cell networks operate.”
Many of us use Google Maps to save serious expense on a satnav, but that means location-based data is constantly being sent out and collated. Since July last year, however, Google has become more transparent about this, changing the Location History folder to Your Timeline, allowing you to check where you’ve been in the last few days.
It comes in handy if you’re frequently forgetting routes — or which bars you visited the night before…
But considering all the things Google knows about you, it’s creepy that the search engine knows which trails you typically walk, which places you frequent, and based on regularity or settings, where you live and where you work.
You can, at least, delete data from specific days or even individual points on the map without getting rid of all the other counters.
Alternatively, you can simply order the app not to collate your information. On iOS, you simply need to open the app, and go on Settings > Privacy > Location > Location History, then tick Do Not Store. On Android, you can use pretty much the same method, but further disable the ability for your whole Google account or specifically on any of the listed devices.
Otherwise, you can deny the app access to your location… but that does completely defeat the point of it.
Shops and Malls
Let’s say you’re debating whether to buy a shirt. You wander away, but you’re drawn back to it. Then your phone urges you on: there’s 10% off in the clothing department. Sold! And while you’re at it, you might as well get a new pair of jeans too…
However, we might feel differently if any such discounts were offered at ransom for your personal information, notably your retail habits. This is all about market research — or more specifically, Wi-Fi analytics. It means a retailer can track its customers around a store, understanding how their clientele circulate in order to improve the flow of the shop, and further to push them into making decisions about their purchases. Your phone is making your mind up for you.
More than 90% of American consumers use coupons each year, and this is fuelled by impulse buying, which generates an estimated $4 billion in sales each year in America alone. Kit Yarrow, who studies consumer psychology at the Golden Gate University, says:
“People tend to purchase impulsively for one of two reasons: an exciting product or an exciting price. A decade ago, a swoon-worthy product was usually the cue. Today, people are more likely to swayed by jaw-dropping prices… Wait 20 minutes before buying. It takes about that long to ‘cool off’ when we find a hot purchase.”
But if you get a tantalising offer via your phone in that time period, it might just sway you into parting with your cash.
In order to save your data usage, your smartphone sends off signals to automatically connect to free Wi-Fi. Retailers use beacons located around stores to determine your whereabouts, and make those offers. Fortunately, all you need to do is turn off your Wi-Fi.
With any modern-day convenience, there will be pros and cons, and being traceable is a side-effect of having a smartphone with you wherever you go.
It’s not always a bad thing: it can act as a GPS, it can help the police, and it can result in some great offers at your favourite stores. Nonetheless, it’s understandable if all this makes you somewhat creeped out.
Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Have you taken extreme measures to avoid detection? Do you carry a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four with you instead of a smartphone? Let us know in the comments!
Explore more about: Online Privacy.