Forfeiting Our Anonymity – New Dangers of the Cell Phone Era

February 11, 2010 — BFDN: Op Ed

Tomorrow, a federal appeals court will hear oral arguments in a case that could establish new standards for tracking the whereabouts of Johnny T. Everymann’s cell phone. Providing no support to the average American’s right to privacy in this case is the Obama administration, who have stated on this matter that Americans have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” when it comes to the location of their cellular communication devices.

The argument is that, in an age where nearly every American adult has a mobile phone, the “government” and law enforcement agencies should have access to information regarding where you were when you made, received, or missed a phone call; when you sent a text message to your brother; when you tweeted about the weather in Tampa when you were really in Anchorage; when you checked the weather in Anchorage when you were in Wichita.

And, in case you’re wondering about the validity of my saying that “nearly every American adult” has a mobile phone, the actual numbers are staggering. Out of 309 million people, there were 277 million active cell phones in these United States. Can’t divide in the millions? Here’s a hint: drop the 6 zeros, you’ll get the same answer. Okay, still can’t do long division in your head? I’ll tell ya – that’s 90% of Americans with cell phones. Comparatively, only 81% of individuals have their own television (252 million units in use).

Did you (or more likely your paranoid uncle) ever look at the TV screen and wonder if there was a tiny little camera on the other side of that glass, recording your every move and sending it to a massive database somewhere, dumping hundreds of hours of footage into a file labeled “EVERYMANN, Jonathon Tyrone”? Well, even if it were true, it would only divulge what you do on your couch – perhaps we’d all be more than a little embarrassed if our file was leaked, but your TV doesn’t follow you when you leave home.

Your cell phone does.

Of course, we’ll be assured that this will only be used in cases where all other options have been exhausted in the apprehension of criminals, and law abiding citizens will never be exploited. After all, the government has a good track record for safeguarding our privacy and keeping promises, hey?

I don’t like it one bit. It scares me almost as much as the REAL ID Act did, when rumors popped up that we would all have to adopt federal ID cards with GPS devices and microchips inside of them, and if we were stopped randomly and were not carrying the card on our person we’d get water boarded.

I have a problem with the argument that states, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to fear.” These are the people who declare that we all ought to submit to random searches when we enter a grocery store, who think that police ought to be able to pull us over without reason, who agree that the authorities have the right to come into our homes without a warrant, that our public schools should have the authority to drug test the entire student body on a regular basis. I have a big problem with this kind of thinking. This ideology eventually broadens until we can all be arrested and detained indefinitely without cause, convicted without evidence. And anyway, don’t I have a right to absolute and complete privacy, especially if I haven’t done anything to warrant attention?

Wanting to remain inconspicuous is not a crime; it’s not even an admission of guilt. Furthermore, what happens when the system, even when it is being used in the most altruistic way, fails us? When it, in fact, facilitates additional risks to our safety? There are myriad possibilities, and I’ve just cooked up an example:

Edna is 16. She works at a car wash after school and on the weekends. After saving for a long time, Edna made enough money to buy a 1991 Acura Legend with 146,000 miles for $600. She bought plates, had it registered and insured. She also bought a pay-as-you-go Kyocera Domino from MetroPCS. The cell phone cost her $29 after a mail-in rebate, and her MetroPCS rate is $40 per month for unlimited talk, text, and web. The car and the cell phone don’t only allow her to enjoy some freedoms that come with being a teenager; the car on the open road and a phone to connect with friends after school is a very important means of escape. You see, Edna is being abused at home.
She lives with her grandparents. Her grandmother is abusive, and her grandfather is elderly and suffering from dementia. Throughout the years, Child Protective Services has been called on her behalf by concerned persons. On at least two occasions, Edna has called the police on her grandmother herself. The local police and social services have not done their job in preventing the continuing abuse.
Edna, finally feeling she has no other choice, runs away from home. She pulls her Acura out of the driveway and slips away into the night. By the time her grandmother realizes Edna’s gone and hasn’t answered any calls on her cell phone, she calls the police and reports her granddaughter as missing. Fortunately for Edna, a new life is on the horizon, and she is already two hundred miles away.
Before she gets too far, however, the authorities track her location for every call she missed from her grandmother. They create a clear cut line across I-80. The police find her in Iowa and return her home. Her grandmother, in an evil fit of rage,
murders Edna.

While this may not be the best example, it is an example nonetheless. I could go on and on about this, but I think by now you catch my drift: this is dangerous. Yet another reason why I don’t trust cellular phones, and if this passes, I may make a habit of traveling with the battery disconnected from the unit. After all, the government is listening to your every word through your cell phone’s microphone even when you think it’s turned off. If you don’t believe that data is being transmitted when your device isn’t set to ON, think a little more about why a buzzing sound comes through the television speakers when you set your phone close by.

So, I propose to turn the Comments below into an open forum; not to argue about this issue, because I’m not interested in hearing dissent. Rather, let it be a forum for inventing more examples of what could happen if this were to pass. If we collect a large enough variety of examples, we can publish a book and use it to win our anonymity back.