Should it be illegal for your phone to track your movements? | The Tylt
A bombshell New York Times story is reigniting fear about how much information your cell phone knows about you. The Times reported many apps that run in the background not only track your location, but send that info to companies, sometimes upwards of 10,000 times a day. While some people recognize the lack of privacy that comes with carrying these devices, many find this to be a drastic overreach. Companies say we agree to surveillance when we download apps and people can turn them off. Others say snooping should be illegal. What do you think?
Should it be illegal for your phone to track your movements?
Most cell phone users are unaware of the way their movements are being tracked and shared. The New York Times talked to one woman, Lisa Magrin, a 46-year-old math teacher from upstate New York, whose location was recorded and shared over 8,600 during four months.
An app on the device gathered her location information, which was then sold without her knowledge. It recorded her whereabouts as often as every two seconds, according to a database of more than a million phones in the New York area that was reviewed by The New York Times. While Ms. Magrin’s identity was not disclosed in those records, The Times was able to easily connect her to that dot.
Companies aren't the only ones who can easily track your movements via your phone. According to Guevara Noubir, a professor of computer and information science at Northeastern University, hackers can also use the combination of tools included on your phone to create a detailed portrait of each of your movements. Writing for Fast Company, Nobir says:
When a user taps on the screen in different locations, the phone itself rotates slightly in ways that can be measured by the three-axis micromechanical gyroscopes found in most current phones. Further, tapping on a phone screen produces a sound that can be recorded on each of a phone’s multiple microphones. A tap close to the center of the screen will not move the phone much, will reach both microphones at the same time, and will sound roughly the same to all the microphones. However, a tap at the bottom left edge of the screen will rotate the phone left and down; it will reach the left microphone faster; and it will sound louder to microphones near the bottom of the screen and quieter to microphones elsewhere on the device.
Processing the movement and sound data together let us determine what key a user pressed, and we were right over 90% of the time. This sort of function could be added secretly to any app and could run unnoticed by a user.
Yet the New York Times notes individuals are capable of turning this tracking off on certain apps. In an addendum to their piece, they have provided a detailed description of how to turn app tracking off. They do note most companies do not let users delete information once it has been collected.
The location data industry benefits from lack of regulation and little transparency, making it extremely difficult to get access to or delete this data. Your information can also be spread among many companies. And most of them store location data attached not to a person’s name or phone number, but to an ID number, so it may be cumbersome for them to identify your data if you want to delete it — and they are under no obligation to do so.
Google, a prominent collector of location data, lets users delete a segment of that information called their Location History. To do that, go to this page, then hit the Delete Location History button. Click it again when prompted. You can delete another segment of location data associated with your Google account by logging in and going to My Activity. Then click on Activity Controls and turn off Web & App Activity.
Wired notes that while it is difficult for users to turn off their location tracking on Google, it is possible.
Google further buries the notion that Web & App Activity has anything to do with location. In fact, the setting sits right above the Location History option, suggesting at a glance that the two things are quite distinct. And Google's vanilla description of Web & App Activity is that it "Saves your activity on Google sites and apps to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services." From there, you have to tap Learn more, then scroll to What's saved as Web & App Activity, and tap again on Info about your searches & more before Google says anything about location whatsoever.
Beyond simply telling consumers to turn off location tracking on their own, the U.S. lawmakers could look to the European Union for a framework for protecting citizen's privacy. NPR reports that in May, the E.U. passed laws known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, to curtail the power of data companies.
At the most basic level, GDPR expands what counts as personal data and your rights over that data. Your data is, for example, what you post on social media, your electronic medical records and your mailing address. It's also your IP address (a string of numbers that's unique to your smartphone or laptop), as well as GPS location.
The directive says people have to give permission for a company to collect their data. A company can't just sign you up without explicitly asking. And the more personal the data — say, biometrics, which is considered a special category under the law — the ask must be even more clear.
Europeans have a right to have their data deleted if they don't want a company to keep it. Companies have to delete the data without undue delay, or face a penalty.