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On Local Government – Phone breadcrumb trail is no fairy tale

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by Bob Pinzler

The New York Times recently published a fascinating, interactive piece showing how others can use your cell phone as a tracking device. This tracking was not done by the government, nor was a search warrant required. All the Times needed was to obtain this data from a location data company, which received the information legally. They did so, in this sample, to the extent of 50 billion pings from 12 million customers.

Ten years ago, the Apple app store was created. Nearly all phone users who download from Apple and other app stores, give up tracking information. This data provides a movement dossier on nearly every American adult, as well as many children.

The Times reporters followed members of the president’s Secret Service detail on a visit to New York. It also followed a senior Defense Department individual during the 2017 Presidential Inauguration and the Women’s March the next day. 

Phone tracking pings, which appeared as dots on a map, were claimed by the authors as revealing “hints of faltering marriages, evidence of drug addiction, and records of visits to psychological facilities.” 

In the wrong hands, this data could provide opportunities for blackmail, destroying careers and imperiling our political system.

We give up this information every time we press “allow” when the question of “do you wish to allow X company to have your location?” We nearly always say yes. Why? Because we think that it will be beneficial to us. It may very well be, but it is way more beneficial to those who receive it, because the data provides power.

As with all information gathered about us, including the movements of our cars via license plate readers and through more and more powerful facial recognition products, the most important question to ask is how the data is being secured. As we discovered from the New York Times piece, that data security is clearly flimsy at best.

Knowing all this, how do we protect ourselves? The article provides four steps. 1. Stop sharing your location with apps. 2. Disable your mobile ad ID. 3. Prevent Google from storing your location. 4. Understand location tracking is hard to avoid. 

The article also provides tips on doing your best to deal with this. 

The article closes with this warning: “Real protections will come only if federal laws are passed to limit what companies can do with the data they collect. Until then, no matter what settings we choose, we’re all at risk.”

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