If you ever get the feeling that everyone seems to know where you are all the time, you aren’t alone. Location-based services are nothing new but they have become much more prominent in recent years. Technology has moved very quickly from having just a few choice apps that supported location track to having the majority of the biggest apps available making use of location-based features to some extent.
In fact, location tracking and localization have become so normalized that most of us don’t even question it anymore. It is precisely because of this complacency that governments around the world are feeling so comfortable with floating the idea of a universal smartphone app that tracks users’ movements throughout the day. in the past, such an app would have been unthinkable – it is exactly the kind of initiative that the Chinese government would have instituted and we would have mocked them for.
Is Universal Tracking The New Norm?
You don’t need to have a background in infectious diseases to understand that there are some very real public health benefits to being able to track individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic. If we set aside the moral and technical implications of constant monitoring and tracking, it’s not hard to understand why governments might be interested in pursuing such tactics. Tracking individual people used to be notoriously difficult and resource-intensive, especially if your goal was to track someone without their knowledge. Major proxy providers (e.g. Smartproxy) can easily help you with that.
But things are different now. We all carry electronic beacons around with us in the form of smartphones. Even if you have switched location services off on your phone, there are still lots of ways that you can be tracked without your knowledge. For example, even with location data turned off, your phone still needs to periodically ‘check in’ with your network provider. This is how your phone knows when it has received a new SMS message – the data is included as part of the regular exchanges that your phone makes with the nearest cell mast
The Role Of Private Businesses
The tracking capabilities that are opened up by universal smartphone ownership might be a privacy expert’s nightmare potentially, enabling a hitherto unheard-of level of intrusion into our personal lives. However, the one saving grace of these devices from a privacy perspective is that they are ultimately the property of private corporations, not governments. Were every citizen to be walking around with a government-issued smartphone, there is no doubt that constant tracking and monitoring would be pervasive.
But, fortunately, or not, depending on how you look at it, smartphones and cell phone towers are in the hands of private corporations in the Western world. That means that if governments want to utilize the communications infrastructure such as cell phones and cell phone towers in order to monitor us, they need the private corporations involved to play ball.
This is scant consolation to anyone who understands the numerous and serious privacy issues that we all face as users of these products. But the fact that the cell phone market is, to some extent, fragmented makes it much harder for the kind of tracking that is now being floated to be implemented without the user’s knowledge and or consent.
An Inevitable Consequence
For the average user, it is hard to know whether to have any sympathy for these businesses or not. While any reports of private corporations sharing data with law enforcement tend to rub people the wrong way, even when warrants have been obtained, it is naive to think that any private entity could process the kind of data that the tech giants like Google and Apple do each day, without attracting the attention of law enforcement. Far be it from us to defend the rich and the powerful, but both Google and Apple have shown significant concerns for their users’ privacy. This contrasts with other businesses, notably Amazon, who are not only willing to share data with law enforcement but are actively courting them with some of their products.
Then again, if this data was not being collected and stored, there would be no debate at all. Law enforcement agencies cannot collect data that doesn’t exist, and if Google or Apple really wanted to stop the issue dead in its tracks, then they would simply stop gathering the data. Of course, giving the commercial value of said data it is very unlikely that either business is inclined to do so.
The New Normal
There has been a lot of talk recently of social distancing and other measures taken against Covid-19 becoming the new normal for much of the world. Right now, our normal way of life and of thinking is completely up in the air, no one knows what the long-term consequences will be. But there are innumerable examples of laws that are still on the books in western democratic societies, laws that were initially enacted as emergency measures to help us through previous crises.
We can debate whether these laws are justified or not all day; that has no impact on the fact that they continue to be enforced. Given the scale of the crisis facing us now, it is vital that we do not lose sight of our basic rights and freedoms. Companies like Google are tracking us all the time, whether we like it or not. It is clear that as long as that data is being collected and held, governments and law enforcement agencies will find ways to access it. The animosity between businesses who claim to be defending our rights and these law enforcement agencies is a distraction from the real issue, that private corporations are able to track us so readily and easily.
The only truly effective remedy for this situation is to make it illegal to gather location data by default. Most people are, understandably, under the impression that they can opt-out of location tracking by simply disabling the option on their phone and denying apps access. However, this does little to prevent your OS provider – Google or Apple – from tracking you constantly.
The 4th amendment of the US Constitution protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure. Within the last decade, SCOTUS has ruled that phone records showing who we have been in contact with are covered by the 4th amendment – the Feds need a warrant if they want to look at those records. It, therefore, seems unthinkable that our location data isn’t covered by the same protections, and yet that is the exact situation we find ourselves in. Automatic location tracking is unconstitutional, and therefore illegal, so it is something that we should all resist.