Today, the New York Times published a galvanizing analysis of the location histories of 12 million cell phones, a stockpile provided to them by sources inside an unnamed location data company that harvests data from mobile apps. This shit is real, man, and we’ve long known that telecoms have been selling our location data to middlemen who can sell it to bounty hunters, and they haven’t answered for that, and their friends at the FCC don’t hold them accountable.
You can tell someone’s watching you when a man’s voice literally tells you he’s watching you as you walk from the kitchen to the living room, or perhaps wishes your daughter a Merry Christmas from Santa, and there’s an easy fix for that–burn all Rings. But the harder problem is escaping the global unseen surveillance state abstracted by large statistics and faceless companies with boring names like “Gimbal” and “Safegraph,” to which the answer is to turn off location services and pray. More often, we just habitually ignore it.
The Times’s data spans Washington, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with various dots at the Pentagon and White House, over a several-month period between 2016 and 2017. They easily tracked down a Department of Defense official at the Women’s March and inferred intelligence officials’ home addresses from their daily commutes. “One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight,” they report. “Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.”
The Times could have ruined lives with the information it possesses, if it chose, for instance, outing a user who’d made frequent short stops at motels–and something like a petty crime or a triste could come back to haunt you years later since your location history is stored permanently. The NYCLU was able to do the exact same thing four years ago using location data collected by license plate readers. In 2017, University of Washington researchers proved that anyone with $1,000 and access to your mobile ID (which they could easily get on your WiFi network, shared by domestic partners) can track your location by placing ads on an app. But the unprecedented vastness of the Times’s data collection and the lengthy timeline allowed them to identify far more granular stories.
This doesn’t just affect people with reputations to lose (the Times was able to track residents of Johnny Depp’s house and Playboy Mansion visitors) or intelligence officials; surveillance comes down hardest on populations whose data is tied to survival. Rachel E. Dubrofsky, associate professor of communication at the University of South Florida and co-author of Feminist Surveillance Studies, tells Gizmodo that she’s primarily concerned for people seeking government assistance, people who have been incarcerated, and immigrants from a country that the U.S. government deems a threat. She worries that this adds another tool for stalkers and abusers to track women, particularly women of color.
Location data also affects workers, Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, points out. While employers don’t have access to consumer databases, they are issuing company cell phones and have no obligation to disclose whether they’re tracking employees or not–and, in fact, has “encountered a few situations” in which bosses refuse to let their employees shut off their phones after work. What happens when your pro-life employer finds you at an abortion clinic, he wonders?
The Times concludes that in the absence of regulation, there is no hope (aside from maybe turning off location sharing and disabling your mobile ID). But all that stuff they collected about you years ago is still out there, and it’s on the market. “We are living in the world’s most advanced surveillance system,” the Times concludes. “It was built through the interplay of technological advance and the profit motive. It was built to make money.”
But the U.S. doesn’t have meaningful laws.