Alert to smartphones tracking us

          Twelve million phones, no privacy

Smartphone-Spy

     New York Times reporters were able to recreate the movements of 12 million U.S. citizens over several months, thanks to the database given to them by an anonymous informant.

          Invisible policing of geolocation databases

     The Times Privacy Project obtained a file, by far the largest and most sensitive file ever examined by journalists. It contains more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they traveled through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

     Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not allowed to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. 

     The sources said they had become alarmed at how the data could be misused and urgently wished to inform the public and legislators.

     The newspaper analysed the data for months with the support of scientists, researchers, lawyers, etc. The newspaper has been working on the analysis of the data for several months. Apart from the superb animations that give the feeling of being in a video game where each point would represent a "Sims", what is clearly frightening is the level of detail of this information.

     After spending months going through the data, tracking the movement of people across the country and talking to dozens of data companies, technologists, lawyers and academics who study this field, we feel the same sense of alarm.

     In the cities covered by the data file, it follows people from almost every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Virginia, or in luxury towers in Manhattan, it even tracks the movements of hundreds of people walking the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defense.

     The Times and other news organizations have reported tracking the smartphone in the past. But never with such a large data set. 

     Even then, this file represents only a small slice of what is collected and sold every day by the location-tracking industry - a surveillance so ubiquitous in our digital lives that it now seems impossible for anyone to avoid it.

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          A bug to geolocate Android users

     Disabling the location of your smartphone or tablet is no longer enough to escape Google... Since January 2017, the American giant has reportedly been collecting the geolocations of its Android clients, its operating system used every month by more than 2 billion active terminals around the world. 

     Google is said to have relied on relay antennas used by Android devices during an Internet connection, according to a survey by the American site Quartz.

     Specifically, the part of Android that manages the sending of messages and notifications collected this information without the users' knowledge, before sending it to Google. 

     According to the Mountain View firm, this aggregation of data would make it possible to improve "the speed and performance of message routing". 

     The information would never be used or even stored, according to Google. The U.S. company has pledged to stop collecting this data.

     This invisible data allowed journalists to put names to all the participants in the Women's March, which had gathered half a million people in Washington on 21 January 2017. 

     In this crowd, the NYT was able to follow the comings and goings of a senior Defense Department official. And see how he walked through the demonstration, which high school he went to, then identify the ceremony he attended, and so on. Imagine what a totalitarian society could do with that data...

     In the current state, the data "gleaned" is used in an opaque manner by companies specializing in the resale of profiles for marketing purposes. 

     Companies with little media coverage - with the exception of Foursquare, none of the names generally appear in consumer articles. But one thing is certain: the US legal framework around personal data is far too permissive. 

     Much more so than that of the European Union, where privacy is a little better respected, even serving as a reference in the world.

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     Companies say that data is only shared with approved partners, we simply choose to take their word for it, showing a benevolent faith in the benevolence of business that we do not extend to the much less intrusive but more heavily regulated industries. 

     Even if these companies act with the strongest moral code imaginable, there is ultimately no foolproof way to secure data from falling into the hands of a foreign security service.

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