The Times Privacy Project was given access to a data set with more than 50 billion location “pings” from the phones of more than 12 million Americans across several major cities. Each piece of information came down to a set of coordinates in time. The result is a tapestry of movement laid across a city grid — like the computer game SimCity, only real.
This granular location data — the kind that is collected by hundreds of mobile apps and then shared with dozens of location data brokers — may seem like a catalog of the mundane. But the aggregate is closer to total surveillance — an exact record of the rhythms of a living, breathing community.
Modern data surveillance relies on the ease of gathering but also the capacity to analyze giant sets of numbers. Run a set of numbers through a computer and the data becomes far more personal and invasive. Data points become a diary. A cluster of pings inside a secure facility reveals clues to the secretive role of an aerospace engineer. Visits to places of worship, trips to Planned Parenthood, a late-night visit to a bail bondsman — all collected in perpetuity and logged forever to be analyzed, traded and monetized. Each mark of latitude and longitude tells the story of the triumphs and tribulations of a life.
Mr. Paige took over managing the Sheriff’s Station social media accounts in 2012, and so he carries two phones and an iPad most of the time. In a dimly lit room where we met, he drummed his fingers on his county-issue iPhone 6 and let out a resigned laugh as we showed him a detailed map of his movements over a few months: shuttling to the dry cleaners, then to lunch downtown followed by a stop at Search and Rescue headquarters and finally to a E.M.T. training at a Glendale community college. When we showed him the thick red lines drawing a direct route from the police station to his home, he winced.
“It is a little surprising,” he confessed. As a law enforcement officer, he was concerned about possible threats against him and his family. In his line of work, any record of his home, as well as of the stores and restaurants he frequents, is a vulnerability.
Mr. Paige is not a stranger to technology and privacy. He meticulously strips photos of their metadata before posting them to the sheriff’s department’s Twitter or Facebook accounts. He checks his permissions and helps educate fellow officers. But though he turns location services off on most of his apps, he’s aware that it takes only one slip-up to transmit his exact coordinates — like everyone, he’s only as secure as the weakest link in his chain of downloaded apps. “Whenever you agree to an app, there's those eight pages of two-point font to read and, yeah, I'm guilty of not reading — just hit ‘accept’ and roll the dice,” he said.
These user agreements explicitly state recorded audio may be used for targeted advertising purposes. Interestingly, such practices aren't against the law. This action allows tech companies to push privacy boundaries even further to encourage us to buy things we don't need.
Google said it has access to "70 percent of credit and debit card transactions in the United States." Along with Facebook and others, it also monitors much of what we're doing across the web. Using hidden tracking technologies, the companies can see many of the pages you – and people connected to you – are visiting, allowing them to better tailor their ads. According to the author of one study, Google has trackers on 76 percent of websites while Facebook watches us on 23 percent of sites.