As I See It: Digital Trafficking
January 13, 2020 Victor Rozek
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights contain many fine words but “privacy” is not among them. At best the right to privacy is implied in the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment that protects against the arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property.
One would think that the systematic and deliberate tracking of our movements would constitute an unreasonable search and seizure or, at the very least, an infringement on our liberty. But the founding fathers could not have conceived of a technology that digitized human beings and reduced them to datasets. Nor could they fathom the extent of corruption made possible by unrestricted lobbying. It’s proven difficult to convince Congress that digital privacy violations require legislative remedy when they’re getting paid handsomely to not be convinced.
Beyond dealing with a purchasable Congress, one of the challenges of managing digital technology is that although it was designed to appeal to our better angels, it also has the capacity to facilitate humanity’s ignoble inclinations.
The attractors are the twin pillars of anonymity and power, and of course their welcome byproduct – money. Anonymity expedites the process of screwing people without them knowing it. Even better, it allows screwing them even though they suspect they’re being screwed, but aren’t able to do anything about it. And better still, it allows profiting from it! It’s the dream of every twisted exploiter with coding skills.
So when The New York Times Privacy Project published its first in a series of “One Nation, Tracked” articles, I wasn’t surprised by the subject matter, but I was astonished by the scope and abuse potential of current tracking practices.
“The Times Privacy Project obtained a dataset with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million people in this country.” By any standard, that’s a lot of information and my first thought was that it must be a nightmare to untangle such a hornet’s nest of anonymous data. I was wrong.
“Yes, the location data contains billions of data points with no identifiable information like names or email addresses,” noted reporters Stuart Thompson and Charlie Warzel “but it’s child’s play to connect real names to the dots that appear on the maps.” And to prove it, they tracked the President of the United States.
There he was Mar-a-Lagoing. Ping. Then off to a nearby golf course. Ping. Then another stop for dinner. Ping. And back to Mar-a-Lago. Ping. They could follow his movements along surface streets, which I’m sure delighted the Secret Service no end.
And because they could, they also tracked some of the comings and goings at the Pentagon. And just for the hell of it, they identified overnight guests at the Playboy mansion. But they could just as easily have located a battered woman hiding from her abuser in a shelter; or people who frequent gay bars, or massage parlors, or a couple checking into a motel room several afternoons each week. All it took to identify specific people was following their pings home, and checking public home ownership records. “Connecting a ping to a person was as easy as combining home and work locations with public information,” said Thompson and Warzel. “A seemingly random set of movements turned into a clear individual pattern after we added just one other piece of information.”
The possibilities for harm, both personal and national, are boundless, and security experts are concerned. Kelli Vanderlee, manager of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity company FireEye warned: “Once stolen, details on sexual interests and extramarital affairs can provide opportunities for extortion. Targets could be coerced in ways large and small, compelled to make decisions or take actions for a foreign government. Or the locations themselves could provide valuable intelligence about security practices, contacts, schedules and the identities of people in prominent and sensitive posts, with access to state secrets or critical infrastructure. Location tracking data of individuals can be used to facilitate reconnaissance, recruitment, social engineering, extortion and in worst-case scenarios, things like kidnapping and assassination.” What could possibly go wrong?
You would think that only the Big Boys like Google et al have the financial and technical wherewithal to conduct human digital trafficking. At least that’s what I thought. And again I was wrong.
Thompson and Warzel report that many small companies whose names you’ve never heard of are busy compiling information on your whereabouts through seemingly innocuous apps like weather services, maps, or even something as mundane as a coupon saver app. These companies collect and sell location information to a variety of interested third parties without necessarily caring or knowing how that data will be used.
Without consumer knowledge or approval, cell phones have been turned into sophisticated surveillance devices. The information gathering practices are largely hidden and much of the hoovering of personal data is done without the full knowledge of the device holders. Add to cell phone tracking, CCTV systems, automatic license plate readers, ATM machines, even the lowly parking meter, and following the breadcrumbs of our lives becomes frighteningly simple.
Of course, the companies doing the hoovering are quick to justify the theft of personal information. They offer a three-pronged defense, claiming that people consent to being tracked; that the data is anonymous; and that the data is secure. Thompson and Warzel counter: “None of those claims hold up, based on the file we’ve obtained and our review of company practices.” Imagine that.
Several states are starting to push back on anonymous data collection, but for the most part the industry is self-regulating. Sorry to say, self-regulation is to data collection what abstinence is to teenage sex.
The siren call to power through anonymity is strong. Add profit, and it becomes irresistible. Trolling, bullying from a safe distance, targeting voters with false information to amplify their fears, phishing, spreading hatred, and casting digital drift nets to harvest personal data. It’s rapidly becoming a world even George Orwell could scarcely recognize. These technologies, it seems, were invented for a nobler species, and many among us are being proven unworthy of them.