Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret

When I was a college junior I took a course on Constitutional Law which introduced me to the idea of the "right to privacy". You see, I did not then know that there was no such right written into the US Constitution. I did not know that this idea, from a constitutional standpoint, was only created in 1961 and did not get support from the US Supreme Court until 1965. I learned that as early as 1928 then Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated that “the right to be left alone” was formed out of the freedom of conscience idea in the First Amendment; that it was formed from the Fourth Amendment’s right to be secure in one’s person; and was based on the Fifth Amendment’s right to refuse self-incrimination.

Today, we seem to take this right for granted. It is the basis for Roe v. Wade which is applied to a woman’s right to privacy as regards abortion rights. It is the basis for a case decided by the Supreme Court in 2003 that eliminated sodomy laws granting privacy rights to the LGBTQ community. It is the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision in 1967 (Katz v. US) granting protection of our telephone conversations that might be tapped by governmental agencies. And this is where technology has been slowly eroding the right to privacy.

Despite a federal Privacy Act of 1974, governing collection and use of personal information, we have seen how Edward Snowden disseminated secrets of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program (which allowed this agency to collect data stored on servers from Internet providers like Microsoft, Google, Facebook et without a warrant). Once Snowden revealed this fact, all the companies fought and won the battle requiring the US Government to be totally transparent in any request for personal data about us on these software servers.

Yet, as shown on the article published today in the NYTimes, we remain at even greater risk of all details of our lives from the very software companies who fought to preserve their rights from government intrusion. Ironically, it is our consent to the apps on our phones and IPads that permit these vendors to track our wanderings where we unwillingly provide the most intimate details of our lives: when we go to the pharmacy, where we practice yoga, if we attended the inauguration of a President, or where we met someone or did something that we hoped would never see the light of day. As the New York Times article shows those free apps are not really free after all. That’s because they sell our location information and make lots of money for their creators off the data given to other companies who analyze it and use it for their own purposes.

“Google and Facebook, which dominate the mobile ad market, also lead in location based advertising. Both companies collect the data from their own apps. They say they don’t sell it but keep it for themselves to personalize their services, sell targeted ads across the internet and track whether the ads lead to sales at brick-and-mortar stores. Google, which also receives precise location information from apps that use its ad services, said it modified that data to make it less exact.”

So we all have to start thinking about whether BIG Brother is here at last or whether we wish to push back and preserve the areas of our privacy that remain important to us. Can we forego getting weather information for the precise area in which we are standing from The Weather Channel app? Do you need Waze to stay on at all times when that enables you to be tracked 24 hours per day? How about Uber, Lyft, Via et al?

It is time to go to the Privacy sections of your phones and tablets and retake control of your own life’s facts. We are not yet ready for a full-throated takeover by Big Brother just yet.