I use Lyft way more than my wallet likes. But being able to check the weather and call a ride in a few quick swipes, makes it way too easy to avoid walking in the New England cold. In the backseat, I’ll usually check the news or Instagram or finally remember to reply to a text. It’s all pretty much habit.
Until last week, when the New York Times published a report exposing the data industry for the location tracking of millions of people across the country.
The explosive op-ed breaks down how this industry tracks our every movement through our phones’ location services. The authors reviewed a leaked dataset that contains more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans over a period of several months.
Those billions of pings can be turned into highly detailed maps of a person’s movements. Even though the data is kept “anonymous,” the information can be easily be used to identify almost any individual in the dataset, including government and military officials. Just a few maps compiled for the article erased any concept of privacy I’ve ever thought I had.
Worse yet, there are no federal laws to regulate how location data companies record, track, or sell your information. No regulations, no mandated privacy protections, no recourse to stop the dissemination of your data.
This unchecked surveillance for sale and at a massive scale is a threat to every individual’s privacy and personal security.
The right to privacy used to be a natural expectation of civilian life. Architects of War on Terror changed all that by using national security as a guise to rapidly expand the surveillance state of our country. Just this year Congress reauthorized Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to spy on Americans without a warrant. But the rise of big technology has brought with it massive corporate surveillance with little to no accountability.
Corporations should not be trusted to protect this information.
Amazon is one company that’s come under for its intrusive data and surveillance practices. It was recently reported that thousands of employees are hired to listen and record our conversations through digital assistant Alexa. The company is also using the video recordings of another product, Ring doorbells, to partner with ICE and local police departments. We know Facebook’s targeted advertising made it a perfect platform for Russia to spread election propaganda in 2016. Corporations have proven time and again that they value their profits more than the protection of our privacy.
Unregulated corporate surveillance at this scale will be abused. The vast information these location data companies hold could allow anyone with access to the ability to track and monitor whoever they want. Currently, many of these companies have internal standards for what they will and won’t sell. But even then, this data can clearly be leaked as that’s how these practices came to light in the first place.
Surveillance at this scale should not be a fact of life, whether it’s in the hands of unchecked corporations or our own government.
As a Black activist who loudly fights against police misconduct, I know there’s always a risk for retaliation. With the support of big tech, the Trump administration has weaponized law enforcement agencies to carry out a white supremacist agenda. At least one activist has already been jailed under this FBI’s “black identity extremist” label. With so much data on our whereabouts, anyone (and pretty much everyone) who speaks out against corruption and abuse could see the complete elimination of their privacy through real-time, omnipresent location tracking.
This invasive tracking through our private devices could very well bolster the ferocity with which ICE is able to target immigrant and refugee families. As abortion becomes increasingly criminalized in red states, local governments that buy access to this data could track anyone who visits or works in a clinic. Religious leaders who provide sanctuary could be monitored in and out of their places of worship.
The right to privacy is not a trivial entitlement to keep secrets. It is a crucial freedom that allows individuals to ensure our safety. The mass surveillance of the location data industry is a threat to the foundation of personal security itself. If we are to live in a technological world where everything will be tracked, we must demand that our rights are protected and that any entity, private or public, will be held accountable to how they use it.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.