Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA
While the sensible thing would be for me to go to bed, a rather creepy dream still lingers in my head. So before I close my eyes and call it a night, I’ll bring my digital delusion to light.
It was midday in a pleasant, if nondescript suburban neighborhood. The sun beamed through a clear sky; cars occasionally pass as I walked with Matt, one of my closest friends from high school, down the sidewalk.
As the two of us walked along, I felt a familiar vibration in my right pocket. However, when I pulled out my iPhone, rather than a new text or update, there was an ominous push notification filled with odd symbols you would normally only find in a corrupted word document. I turned my head—Matt looked down at his phone and grimaced.
“We’ve been hacked, they know our location, and they’re coming for us,” said Matt.
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t know. We can’t risk it though.”
The two of us split up, running in zig-zags through a hellish urban sprawl, disoriented and paranoid.
We eventually reunited in a run-down auto shop to plan our next move. On a laptop, using Tor, I looked up the symbols from the push notification to learn more. Matt was right. This was real…
Fortunately, soon after, as shadows gathered around the outside of the building, I woke up.
This was my first digital nightmare. Normally my nightmares are run of the mill—like experiencing a head on collision, entering a final exam completely unprepared, or falling from the sky.
Unfortunately, this nightmare isn’t nearly as far fetched as it sounds. In 2008, just a few years before the Mubarak regime fell in the Arab Spring, Vodafone, a prominent mobile wireless carrier, announced that the Egyptian government had forced them to turn over the personal mobile data of citizens involved in a protest concerning a food shortage.
In addition, last year, the Chinese government announced plans to monitor the location of over 17 million cell phone users in Beijing, reducing the ability of said people to move around unmonitored.
For some privacy advocates, the United States isn’t exactly setting a good example in terms of civil liberties and mobile data privacy. In August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that tracking the location of a cell phone without a warrant does not violate the 4th Amendment. As Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead noted, this ruling contradicts the notion emanating from the 4th Amendment that the police should not be conducting surveillance on you without a reasonable suspicion that you’re doing something illegal.
And that’s not all. Two months ago, a Congressional inquiry revealed that cell phone carriers responded to over 1.3 million requests for text messages, phone records, location data, and other information from law enforcement agencies last year. If that’s enough to give pause, consider that the carrier companies have a strong financial incentive to comply with these requests. Carriers can make a few thousand dollars per request by charging law enforcement agencies surveillance fees; last year, AT&T reportedly took in 8.3 million dollars from surveillance-related activities.
Of course, there were probably good reasons for some of those police requests to collect mobile data. It’s possible that the current arrangement in which law enforcement agencies can access your mobile data by simply writing your carrier a check balances the issues at play. However, if that’s our new social contract, we’ve significantly lowered our expectations of privacy. In light of this, we may be overdue for a national discussion about our mobile data privacy rights.
Nightmares don’t always make sense, but sometimes they’re based on real fears. In my head I can still see the twisted symbols on that push notification. This is one of those dreams I hope never comes true.
Ross Slutsky covers emerging digital technology issues for “Digital Frontiers” from Atlanta, Georgia