Reaction Paper #2

I.

This unit of my Digital Citizenship and Identity course was focused on privacy and security online. One additional reading I did for this class was a New York Times article titled “Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police”. It focuses on the example of a homicide case in Phoenix, Arizona where police made a false arrest based on data tracking the suspect’s phone to the site of the crime and security video including the model of car said suspect, John Molina, owned. To get the phone data, the department ordered a “geoforce” warrant, specifying a time and location, and Google sent them information from its database called Sensorvault about the devices that were there, labeled with anonymous ID numbers (though we’ve discussed in class how nothing digital is truly anonymous). From there, according to the article:

“Detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information.”

In under a week, the Phoenix police found more evidence that exonerated Molina, and later arrested his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who sometimes borrowed his car and already had a criminal record.

This article reminded of a different NYT article we had to read at the beginning of this unit, titled “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret”, which went into depth about the deceptive ways apps record and use their user’s location data, creating whole maps of their daily routines. One woman’s phone recorded her coordinates as often as every two seconds. Most smartphone users these days understand that their device records their location, but the way that data is used, and who gets access to it, is rarely made clear when first activating location services for an app, often only laid out in its esoteric privacy policy/terms of service.

The first article shows the practical consequences of letting ourselves be tracked through every hour of the day, and it comes across as much more serious than the now apparently begrudged acceptance of targeted ads based on our commodified personal data. While that article provides multiple examples where the data proved genuinely helpful in criminal investigations, it also points out the following:

“According to several current and former Google employees, the Sensorvault database was not designed for the needs of law enforcement, raising questions about its accuracy in some situations.”

Both of these articles were authored primarily by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries. She has worked for years reporting not just for the New York Times, but also the Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, researching the ways issues of technology, privacy, and computer security intersect with the business and legal worlds. This included serving as a lead reporter for the Journal’s Pulitzer Prize qualifying series on digital privacy, “What They Know”, from 2010 to 2013. Ms. Valentino-DeVries has a master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. This all makes it sound like the topic of this particular article, how Google’s technology is being used by law enforcement and the potential ethical implications, is right up her alley.

II.

This part of my paper is directed at my younger brother Kamden, who, like me, uses an iPhone. After the readings I’ve done for this class on strengthening the privacy settings on our devices, there are some practices I’ve taken on that I think he (and perhaps you, dear reader) should adopt as well. Open the Settings application and scroll to the bottom, where you can view what features each app you’ve downloaded has access to. You can change a few things from here, such as which apps have access to your location and which apps send you what kinds of notifications. I recommend turning off access to location for any app that doesn’t require it to function, and if you don’t want anyone peeking at your notifications, you can set them to not show up on your lock screen and/or to not be saved to your notification center. 

One other thing I learned from the article “How to Check and Tighten All Your iPhone’s Privacy Settings” on How to Geek is to go to Settings > Safari and make sure it’s set to prevent cross-site tracking, warn of fraudulent websites, and block all cookies. As the article notes, blocking cookies will mean “you’ll need to log in to services more frequently and some features… will not persist between sessions.” However, if having to log in to sites repeatedly sounds like too much of an annoyance to you, the article also recommends alternate browsers that were made with privacy as a priority, such as DuckDuckGo.

Works Cited

Brookes, Tim. “How to Check and Tighten All Your iPhone’s Privacy Settings.” How-To Geek, How-To Geek, 8 July 2019, https://www.howtogeek.com/424624/how-to-check-and-tighten-all-your-iphones-privacy-settings/.

“Jennifer Valentino-DeVries.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, https://www.wsj.com/news/author/jennifer-valentino-devries.

Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer, et al. “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 10 Dec. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html.

Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer. “Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 13 Apr. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/13/us/google-location-tracking-police.html.

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