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PAM FRAMPTON: A spy in every pocket and purse

Your cellphone may know more about you than you know, and some of that information may be shared and sold. —
Your cellphone may know more about you than you know, and some of that information may be shared and sold. — 123RF Stock photo

“Every move you make, and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I'll be watching you.” — The Police

I just re-read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” — as apropos as ever in these technologically invasive times.

In Atwood’s fictional city Republic of Gilead, the government has spies known as “Eyes” on the ground, with no one ever sure whether they are being watched or by whom.

The sense of paranoia she captured so masterfully in 1985 has never resonated more powerfully than it does today.

Except that now, on the cusp of 2020, we willingly carry the “Eyes” on our person as smartphones and allow ourselves to be watched and tracked.

An impressive but stunningly chilling series from The New York Times’ Opinion section — “One Nation, Tracked” — which began on Thursday, shows just how much information is being gathered as we go about our daily lives, and how it can be bought and sold for the purposes of manipulation.

The information can be used to precisely track people’s movements and map out their routines.

The first instalment in the series “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy” by Stuart A. Thompson, Charlie Warzel and others, sets out the situation starkly:

“We are living in the world’s most advanced surveillance system. This system wasn’t created deliberately. It was built through the interplay of technological advance and the profit motive. It was built to make money. The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.”

The series explains how unregulated companies are gathering personal data through cellphones, and are storing and selling it for a variety of purposes — targeted marketing, chief among them to be sure.

But the implications of how the information could be used for more surreptitious, even dangerous purposes, is disturbing.

And though this series focuses on the United States, we should all be disturbed.

One data file obtained by the Times contains “more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

The information can be used to precisely track people’s movements and map out their routines.

“If you could see the full trove,” the Times says of the data, “you might never use your phone the same way again.”

I often use the Notes app on my cellphone to write grocery lists. Imagine my surprise during one trip to the supermarket to find that Notes was picking up snippets of conversation from shoppers around me and adding words to my list. Right under “Broccoli, bananas, Brussels sprouts,” I found “We don’t need that,” and other words and phrases that I had not typed or said.
Which means, conversely, that conversations I was having might have been picked up by someone else’s phone.

That’s somewhat random. What the Times is exploring is the deliberate gathering of information by companies trying to influence your purchases and other choices, and what could happen if that information wound up in the wrong hands.

From being able to track the movements of a political rival to plan a smear campaign, technologically stalking an ex, or gathering military intelligence, the possibilities of how the data could be used to harm others are unlimited.

Children are also under the microscope.

As the Times journalists note, “tens of millions of Americans, including many children, find themselves carrying spies in their pockets during the day and leaving them beside their beds at night…”

Google “location data companies” and you’ll find scores of them. One of them, Quadrant, promises to deliver “Everything you want. Nothing more, nothing less,” and provides an explanation of SDKs — software developments kits — which are codes contained in the apps you download to your phone, which direct the apps to collect your data.

“Data collected by SDKs have the potential to be very accurate and insightful,” Quadrant notes. “Users’ daily habits can be tracked which may uncover deeper insights for businesses.”

And for nasty business, as well.

The full New York Times series is being published in instalments this weekend.

As Margaret Atwood might observe, when it comes to your personal data, “The Eyes have it.”

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton


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