Why Your Phone Data is Dangerous
Updated: May 19, 2022
Suppose you had a sudden medical issue, so you call your pharmacy and stop your current medication until it's resolved. However, things suddenly take a turn. In pain and scared, you realize you need to make an appointment with a specialist. You look up the office number on your phone and make an appointment. Since it's a new place, you look up the directions on your phone map and use it to get to the office. In the lobby, you're scrolling social media while you wait to be called. After the appointment, you go home, relieved that you were able to receive the medical care you needed. That should be the end of it, right? Unfortunately, no.
Let's say, because it's highly possible in some states in the coming future, that your medical procedure suddenly becomes illegal. You need it nonetheless and go about your private business of securing treatment for yourself. What if someone reported you? How would they prove it? You went by yourself, you told no one but the staff, you took care of your own recovery, and didn't even miss work. How would a prosecutor know? Unfortunately, the little location sharing, online research storing, and data tracking computer in your pocket will tell them everything.
Recent news about a possible Supreme Court removal of civil rights for the nearly 166 million women in this country, something that has NEVER happened in our history, has prompted many to question just how easily accessible our personal location data is. Many wonder just how dangerous that information is to them?
Let's break it down. According to the NIH, an estimated 50 million women worldwide use period tracker apps. They help women track everything from fertility windows and ovulation days, period length, symptoms like nausea, and predicted period start dates. These apps promise privacy and protection for your data. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Last year, a popular period tracker, FLO, settled with the FTC after admitting it lied to its customers and sold information about its over 100 million users to third parties. It wasn't just names and emails, either. It was dates of periods and pregnancy plans. This can be used against you in court and they wouldn't even need a warrant to get this information. FLO sold this information to Google, Facebook, and other data brokers that package and sell your personal information at incredibly cheap prices. Scary, right? It gets worse.
During the heat of the pandemic upswing, the CDC bought data from millions of phones from a highly controversial data broker, SafeGraph. According to documents attained by Motherboard, and reported by Vice, "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bought access to location data harvested from tens of millions of phones in the United States to perform analysis of compliance with curfews, track patterns of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation, according to CDC documents obtained by Motherboard."
Though they bought an aggregate data cluster, deanonymizing your personal data to identify you is relatively easy. A group of urban planners at MIT proved it took just a week to identify 95% of the users. Personal information about where you went, spent money, stayed overnight, ordered in, and who you were with can be identified. Your privacy is not as iron-clad as you think it is.
Court documents show the FBI used phone location data to capture suspects of the January 6th insurrection via controversial Geofence warrants or reverse-location warrants. Google data points on a given location area are scraped, anonymized, and handed over to law enforcement. If they find someone of interest, they go back for more specific information. It is usually used for robberies or assaults in a specific city location. However, according to Cnet and court documents, the University of California has already used this kind of warrant to use protestors' phone data against them. Geofence was used against Black Lives Matter protestors as well. So much so, that it prompted the creation of guides on how to protect digital privacy while protesting.
Please realize this isn't happening to people on just one side of the political spectrum. January 6th protestors, Black Lives Matter demonstrators, innocent people who had Covid, and yes, your sister or daughter or wife or mother could be next. This is a major problem for all of us.