Spotlight Topic:  Ubiquitous Technical Surveillance (UTS)

source:, 12/26/2019

Two Times Opinion writers answer readers’ questions on their investigation into how companies track smartphone users and profit off their data.

The New York Times Opinion desk published an investigation last week into the location data industry, showing how companies quietly collect and profit off the precise movements of smartphone users. The investigation, One Nation, Tracked, explored the dangers that location tracking poses and argued for more regulation around these modern technologies.

We invited our readers to ask the writers behind the investigation, Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, questions about smartphone tracking. We heard from more than 1,100; here is a selection, lightly edited. 

As one of the youngest millennials, it’s hard for me to not look at this matter with apathy, since it has been a part of my digital life as long as I have had such a life. What would you say to someone who considers themselves normal and boring — no one to stalk them, doesn’t have enough money to be influenced by location-based advertising, etc.? Why should such a person care about this?
— Emily Loof, Colorado Springs

We’ve heard this a lot throughout the Privacy Project — even from people we found in the data after we showed up on their doorstep! We get it. Many of us have nothing to hide and don’t consider ourselves that important. But what about people who do have some private part of their lives or want more privacy?

None of us really has a choice to participate in tracking or not — the system just serves up location data, usually without us noticing. So for people who do want a bit of privacy — worshipers, young people visiting Planned Parenthood, those visiting a queer space, survivors hiding from an abuser — they no longer have a real choice about their privacy. Because the tracking touches everyone, can we really give up after concluding it’s fine for us? When we participate in this system, we’re tacitly endorsing it.

There’s a great piece we urge everyone to read about how privacy is a collective concern. It really opened our eyes, and perhaps it will for you, too.

The other, more direct answer is that while you don’t care now, you might in the future. Once your location is collected, you’ll never get it back — you’ll never know where it’s gone, who’s bought it, who’s looked at it. What if new scandals give you fresh concern? What if you rose to a position of importance or prominence later? If our data simply leaked online for everyone to see, it could ruin relationships, people could be fired, and so on.

You don’t need to be so concerned today that you throw your phone in the lake. But you can have just enough concern to ask that basic laws get passed to protect people who need protecting from a largely unregulated industry.

image - cell phone tracking