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Maass and Rajagopalan write: "The device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone - guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let's stop calling them phones. They are trackers."

ACLU documents show that many law enforcement agencies track cellphones without obtaining a warrant. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
ACLU documents show that many law enforcement agencies track cellphones without obtaining a warrant. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)

That's No Phone. That's My Tracker.

By Peter Maass, Megha Rajagopalan, The New York Times

15 July 12


HE device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone - guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let's stop calling them phones. They are trackers.

Most doubts about the principal function of these devices were erased when it was recently disclosed that cellphone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data. That's not even a complete count, because T-Mobile, one of the largest carriers, refused to reveal its numbers. It appears that millions of cellphone users have been swept up in government surveillance of their calls and where they made them from. Many police agencies don't obtain search warrants when requesting location data from carriers.

Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up - and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.

We have all heard about the wonders of frictionless sharing, whereby social networks automatically let our friends know what we are reading or listening to, but what we hear less about is frictionless surveillance. Though we invite some tracking - think of our mapping requests as we try to find a restaurant in a strange part of town - much of it is done without our awareness.

"Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers," writes Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado. "These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet."

Mr. Ohm labels them tracking devices. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously. Scholars have called them minicomputers and robots. Everyone is struggling to find the right tag, because "cellphone" and "smartphone" are inadequate. This is not a semantic game. Names matter, quite a bit. In politics and advertising, framing is regarded as essential because what you call something influences what you think about it. That's why there are battles over the tags "Obamacare" and "death panels."

In just the past few years, cellphone companies have honed their geographic technology, which has become almost pinpoint. The surveillance and privacy implications are quite simple. If someone knows exactly where you are, they probably know what you are doing. Cellular systems constantly check and record the location of all phones on their networks - and this data is particularly treasured by police departments and online advertisers. Cell companies typically retain your geographic information for a year or longer, according to data gathered by the Justice Department.

What's the harm? The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruling about the use of tracking devices by the police, noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person "is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups - and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts." Even the most gregarious of sharers might not reveal all that on Facebook.

There is an even more fascinating and diabolical element to what can be done with location information. New research suggests that by cross-referencing your geographical data with that of your friends, it's possible to predict your future whereabouts with a much higher degree of accuracy.

This is what's known as predictive modeling, and it requires nothing more than your cellphone data.

If we are naïve to think of them as phones, what should we call them? Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, argues that they are robots for which we - the proud owners - are merely the hands and feet. "They see everything, they're aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us," he has said. Over time, we've used these devices less for their original purpose. A recent survey by O2, a British cell carrier, showed that making calls is the fifth-most-popular activity for smartphones; more popular uses are Web browsing, checking social networks, playing games and listening to music. Smartphones are taking over the functions that laptops, cameras, credit cards and watches once performed for us.

If you want to avoid some surveillance, the best option is to use cash for prepaid cellphones that do not require identification. The phones transmit location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you. These cellphones, known as burners, are the threads that connect privacy activists, Burmese dissidents and coke dealers.

Prepaids are a hassle, though. What can the rest of us do? Leaving your smartphone at home will help, but then what's the point of having it? Turning it off when you're not using it will also help, because it will cease pinging your location to the cell company, but are you really going to do that? Shutting it down does not even guarantee it's off - malware can keep it on without your realizing it. The only way to be sure is to take out the battery. Guess what? If you have an iPhone, you will need a tiny screwdriver to remove the back cover. Doing that will void your warranty.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about these issues and believes we are confronted with two choices: "Don't have a cellphone or just accept that you're living in the Panopticon."

There is another option. People could call them trackers. It's a neutral term, because it covers positive activities - monitoring appointments, bank balances, friends - and problematic ones, like the government and advertisers watching us.

We can love or hate these devices - or love and hate them - but it would make sense to call them what they are so we can fully understand what they do. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+22 # KrazyFromPolitics 2012-07-15 17:20
There should be a requirement to opt out of having a tracking device, or, at least, an easy way to completely disable the tracking function. The only value for a locator would be an emergency situation. That is, except for the surveillance types that have a sociopathic need to control their environment, according to their myopic point of view. Do schools even require students to read "1984", "Brave New World" and other horrific predictions of dystopias of the future, anymore? That question is probably rhetorical. The "repugs" have held 33 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Who is going to call a vote to repeal the "Patriot Act"? An act that tightens up healthcare isn't important, but one that inches us toward totalitarianism is? Makes no sense, except for the power brokers.
+7 # futhark 2012-07-16 08:21
Teaching at a high school that had a sustained silent reading program built into every school day, I tried to have dystopian novels available for those who hadn't brought their own materials and were looking for something to read. They never seemed to be very popular. I had "Nineteen Eighty-four" and my favorite, Ira Levin's "This Perfect Day". Since retiring I discovered "The Bar Code Tattoo" and its sequel "The Bar Code Rebellion", both by Suzanne Weyn, more up-to-date that the classics of the genre and written for younger and perhaps less skilled readers.

I read "Brave New World" in high school in the 1960s, but don't now recall if it was assigned or if I just read it on my own. The oldest dystopia of which I know is H. G. Wells' "When The Sleeper Wakes" (1899), rewritten and retitled "The Sleeper Awakes" (1910), and used as the basis for the Woody Allen movie "Sleeper" (1973).
+2 # Bookmark 7 2012-07-16 09:09
From everything I've read, the collection & selling of personal data is now a big business. Jeffery Deaver wrote a book called BROKEN WINDOW...yes its fiction, but now it is very possible to pinpoint our every move, every transaction. I'm surprised that more people are not aware of how we are tracked daily.
0 # jooberdoober 2012-07-16 10:17
That's why you use a "burner phone"!
0 # The Voice of Reason 2012-07-16 15:14
The court ruling 'noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person "is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband,"

Notice how protecting the heavy drinker and the unfaithful husband are prominent among the court as chief concerns. Are they speaking for us, or for themselves and their little mens clubs ???

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