The recent New York Times article That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker got me thinking about convenience versus privacy.
If all this data is available to cops (and others?) so easily, then I feel a John Grisham type scenario coming on—in which much more info is available than someone thought and can be used by:
> a spouse fighting another in divorce court
> a criminal attorney trying to discredit a witness
> an employer justifying the termination of a whistleblower
…or any number of scenarios in which having the dirt on someone no longer requires spending thousands of dollars on a private investigator. It just requires collecting some cellphone data. And it’s not hard to imagine that the same data can be hacked by unscrupulous folks. In some cases we just give it away—when we accept the permissions in order to download an app.
The convenience of being tracked
Certainly, all tracking is not evil. The fact that my phone knows where I am means I can get local info such as weather and traffic. A phone tracking device could help find a kidnapping victim or a person lost in the woods.
I’m in marketing. Both personally and professionally, I’m a big fan of targeted ads—the ones that know I’ve been reading up about healthy cooking and show me ads for recipes and cookbooks alongside my Google search results. But as the sophistication grows, these tracking abilities are feeling more uncomfortably intrusive.
The scary side
A colleague in marketing was just telling me that some audio files have embedded watermarks and your phone can snoop on what you are listening to, to learn customer behavior and do targeted marketing. The phone is actually listening for the watermark and storing the info, he said. I had never heard of that and it felt creepy, although I hope it’s no worse than Google “reading” my emails electronically to send me those recipe ads.
A friend was just sharing her alarm about "image aging" software that companies (who? Google? Facebook?) can use on a picture of your kid that you posted online—or anyone else did. The software will recognize him in every online photo he's in as he grows. So even if his name is never given—except that one time he is in the local paper because he was in a sporting event or did something spectacular at school—then the software-wielding company will merge all the data under his name, matching that with data they collected using his name without a photo. They’ll also have the data on the friend next to him in the photo. And if that kid is a lot more open about his behaviors, then they know a lot of your kid’s probable behaviors.
It’s certainly compelling to turn off the GPS-based location watermark for your camera. And I’m always amazed at people who post vacation photos while they are still out of town. Aren’t you just posting a big “rob my house now” banner on your front door? I’m sure I’ve been guilty of doing it, too. It’s so natural to shout “Hallelujah! We are finally at the beach! And check out this amazing sunset.” Who thinks of these things?
A few people do. A fellow I know who used to drive all over the country for business refused to get an EZPass. I was incredulous. You sit in all those long toll lines? He said “Why don’t I just send them a note inviting them to issue me a speeding ticket? You can’t get here from there in that amount of time without speeding.” But as I vaguely understand it, that’s not part of the business model—so far. And I think even he has capitulated to convenience over privacy as the toll lines grow because fewer humans man the booths. Those tolls that let you roll through at 20+MPH are pretty compelling, too.
Expectations of privacy
I find it fascinating how many teens seem to be growing up with their lives plastered everywhere, with little obvious concern for privacy. Perhaps folks who are aware of this tracking capability (the few who actually read the permissions when they download a smartphone app) or who choose to engage in social media have just given up. I won't even get into Foursquare and TripIt. And other demographic groups are adopting the same technologies and online tools, following in the same direction.
Are we just giving away all our privacy out of ignorance or fatigue? Is convenience truly worth it? Is privacy over-rated? Or is it just too hard to avoid?
I’m writing a blog, so you can see where I've landed on the topic.
How much trouble is privacy worth?
I’m not sure it’s worth trying to be untrackable. To do so, I suspect you'd need to forgo credit cards, store loyalty programs, helpful "remember my login" cookies, your GPS and EZ pass. What about your library card, your appliance warranties, your credit score and your mortgage application? Where is that data going? I think one would need a 100% cash lifestyle to stay predominantly private and you’d need to go completely off the grid to do it perfectly. But opting in for tracking doesn’t mean it’s smart to be blind to what is being tracked. And increasing transparency is a hot topic in regulatory and other circles. My marketing colleague said the next round of internet browsers will default to no cookies. That’s a remarkable change.
In the meantime, it’s up to us to become at least somewhat informed. Read those permissions before you download! Make informed choices about privacy versus convenience.
Next time, I’ll share a few of my favorite Android apps—the ones I feel are worth downloading despite their ability to track my every move.