How secure is your smartphone?

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There is a court case currently proceeding in the United States which has academics and civil rights activists all over the world buzzing with activity. This Supreme Court case pits the American government against Antonie Jones, an alleged drug dealer. Jones’s legal team argues that the events preceding his arrest back in 2008 were in direct opposition to his fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and the inferred right to privacy. For 28 days, local police officers used data sent from GPS tracking devices attached to his car to monitor his every move, gathering evidence with which to convict him.

What is it about this court case that has so many international scholars and activists worked up? Is it really a topic that we, as students at Wilfrid Laurier University, should even bother being informed on? If the United States government wins their case, the Supreme Court will have ruled out the necessity of a obtaining a warrant before tracking suspects using GPS technology. The implications of this are huge, especially when so many of us carry these GPS tracking devices right in our pockets, in the form of cell phones. Legal experts predict that this will “open the floodgates” to whole new waves of electronic tracking, globally altering governments’ perceptions of what constitutes as personal privacy.

The word “privacy” has become the catchphrase of the entire case. While Jones is arguing violation of privacy, the government has an interesting rebuttal. They question his claim to violation and insist that Jones has set “unrealistic expectations of privacy.” It is this specific question of privacy which has led to considerable debate in the world of academia. Many scholars are beginning to ask if privacy even exists anymore. Suppose we take the dictionary definition of privacy as “being free of intrusion of disturbance into one’s private life or affairs.”

Can we still find practical applications of that in our daily lives? Or, must we concede to agree like so many scholars have, that privacy is outdated and passé?

This question takes on particular relevance in a generation so heavily saturated with cell phones. These technologies are opening up new avenues for rapid information exchange. Even though the ultimate levels of information sharing occur between users of smartphones, even those choosing to remain with a more traditional cell phone are not without surveillance. All of these phones rely on radio waves to remain in service.

To date, these waves have been used predominantly by phone companies, but many other groups are quickly finding innovative uses for them. In a very recent example, officials in several major shopping malls used cell phone signals to carry out crowd control in the Black Friday madness. Even though they could not gain access to personal information surrounding the waves, they used the waves not only to target key areas of congestion, but also to monitor for potential shoplifters. If a signal was shown to be coming from a particular location for prolonged lengths of time, further investigative methods were carried out.

Looking at examples like these opens our eyes to the possibilities of GPS technology. Not only does the ability to monitor every movement of a person’s life reveal incredible amounts of information, being able to access all their texts, posts and pictures very quickly fills in any gaps.

Since we know that our cell phone is in constant communication with the phone company, the realization of just how little privacy we actually have is quite astonishing.

Does the realization of this fact bother you? Personally, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable but if you said no, you are by no means alone. One thing that has repeatedly astonished scholars is the relative ease with which our generation is willing to toss all vestiges of our privacy to the wind. They call us “the Facebook generation” and point to the excitement and pleasure we get out of sharing all the gory details of our lives with the world.

Yet, perhaps a more pertinent question is: should it bother us? I would argue that yes, it should. Aside from the obvious argument that this information could fall into the wrong hands, I feel that there is a deeper psychological argument.

Study after study has shown that there are negative implications to constantly trying to keep up a good “public face.” We shouldn’t have to live our lives under the constant pressure of knowing that we could be being watched and our activities misconstrued, be it by our friends, family members or the civil authorities.

In conclusion, let’s not be “dumb” with our “smart” phones.

The incredible ease of sharing personal information via smartphones should never blind us to the fact that we are sending this information into a world of cyberspace where anyone can see the info, providing they have sufficient power or money.


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