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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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You Are Number Six

What at least one Congressman has been doing with his cell phone has been in the media quite a bit lately. Since late March, quite a few senators and representatives have taken a sudden interest in what happens when we use our phones and other mobile devices.

Security researchers announced that several models of Apple’s popular iPhone and iPad were logging the whereabouts of users, including precise GPS location data and information about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. They were storing the data and even migrating it to new devices you might buy. Despite Apple’s claims about security and privacy, the researchers were able to create a program that mapped user locations from the iPhones they examined. Very soon, The Wall Street Journal revealed that users of phones using the Android operating system were being similarly tracked by Google.

Politicians suddenly sprang into action. Senators Jay Rockefeller, John McCain and John Kerry have introduced bills authorizing varying degrees of federal regulation and consumer opt-outs of computer and mobile device tracking. “Do-Not-Track” bills have been introduced in some state legislatures.

You’d better believe that elected officials are concerned. Some of these people are married to their phones. The information being collected by Google, Apple and I’m sure many others has even our corporation-compliant Congress concerned. These are people who don’t want their every move tracked, every address they visit logged, every meeting place and every personal hideaway saved for whatever use.

Two months ago, a German politician went to court to find out what his cellphone company knew about his whereabouts. In a six-month period starting on August 31, 2009, the company had recorded and saved his exact position more than 35,000 times.

The sale of location data is expected to explode into a $9 billion industry within the next few years. These companies say they are doing all this for our convenience, but this goes beyond letting you know if there’s a good pizzeria around the corner. If you were the CEO of a big company, wouldn’t it be helpful to know if two competing CEOs were meeting frequently? Would it help you to anticipate or perhaps even to manipulate an upcoming deal? You might use geographic data to find out if employees are looking for a job at another company, or visiting a doctor, or a bar.

Some people, especially younger people, like to be tracked. If you want to use Google Latitude and inform your pals when you’re near them, great. The social network makes this into a game. Good for you. You are making an informed choice to opt in. But that isn’t always the case, especially when the lines blur between companies that collect data and the people who are supposed to be looking out for our interests.

There was an uproar in Europe in April when it was revealed that Tom Tom, the manufacturer of GPS Navigation devices, sold speed information from user devices to the Dutch police. It was done so that the police could set up speed traps. It was inferred by many that the firm’s GPS devices could be routing drivers directly to the speed traps. Will it eventually be possible for police to issue retroactive tickets to people who sped last month? We do it with red light cameras already.

There are signs everywhere of technology getting ahead of us, getting out of our control, regardless of intentions.

The Michigan State Police have been using the CelleBrite UFED, a small device that can extract every bit of data from a cell phone in about 90 seconds, including call history, text messages, contacts, images and GPS data. The device extracts even “hidden” and password-encrypted files. They have been extracting cell phone data from motorists stopped for even minor traffic violations, without warrants.

We have entire industries springing up based on the unfettered collection of data and the sale of detailed dossiers about our behavior. We have no right to see or challenge the information. How are government agencies involved?

“Privacy is dead, get over it.” said Scott McNeally, CEO of Sun Microsystems several years ago. Maybe, but we should have some kind of a say.


Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: