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|How Your Phone Betrays Democracy|
|USA||Created: 22 Dec 2019|
In footage from drones hovering above, the nighttime streets of Hong Kong look almost incandescent, a constellation of tens of thousands of cellphone flashlights, swaying in unison. Each twinkle is a marker of attendance and a plea for freedom. The demonstrators, some clad in masks to thwart the government’s network of facial recognition cameras, find safety in numbers.
But in addition to the bright lights, each phone is also emitting another beacon in the darkness — one that’s invisible to the human eye. This signal is captured and collected, sometimes many times per minute, not by a drone but by smartphone apps. The signal keeps broadcasting, long after the protesters turn off their camera lights, head to their homes and take off their masks.
In the United States, and across the world, any protester who brings a phone to a public demonstration is tracked and that person’s presence at the event is duly recorded in commercial datasets. At the same time, political parties are beginning to collect and purchase phone location for voter persuasion.
“Without question it’s sinister,” said Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University and former president of Students for a Democratic Society, a prominent activist group in the 1960s. “It will chill certain constitutionally permitted expressions. If people know they’ll be tracked, it will certainly make them think twice before linking themselves to a movement.”
A trove of location data with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans obtained by Times Opinion helps to illustrate the risks that such comprehensive monitoring poses to the right of Americans to assemble and participate in a healthy democracy.
Within minutes, with no special training and a little bit of Google searching, Times Opinion was able to single out and identify individuals at public demonstrations large and small from coast to coast.
By tracking specific devices, we followed demonstrators from the 2017 Women’s March back to their homes. We were able to identify individuals at the 2017 Inauguration Day Black Bloc protests. It was easy to follow them to their workplaces. In some instances — for example, a February clash between antifascists and far-right supporters of Milo Yiannopolous in Berkeley, Calif. — it took little effort to identify the homes of protesters and then their family members.
The anonymity of demonstrators has long been a contentious issue. Governments generally don’t like the idea for fear that masked protesters might be more likely to incite riots. Several states, including New York and Georgia, have laws that prohibit wearing masks at public demonstrations. Countries including Canada and Spain have rules to limit or prohibit masks at riots or unlawful gatherings. But in the smartphone era — masked or not — no one can get lost in a sea of faces anymore.
Imagine the following nightmare scenarios: Governments using location data to identify political enemies at major protests. Prosecutors or the police using location information to intimidate criminal defendants into taking plea deals. A rogue employee at an ad-tech location company sharing raw data with a politically motivated group. A megadonor purchasing a location company to help bolster political targeting abilities for his party and using the information to dox protesters. A white supremacist group breaching the insecure servers of a small location startup and learning the home addresses of potential targets.
Lokman Tsui, an activist, researcher and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told us that third parties that sell this data are a problem because “the standards to buy this information aren’t that rigorous — it’s not like the companies have ethical review boards. The university I’m at is able to buy data, and it’s fairly easy to get it. And the kind of data they can buy makes me raise my eyebrows, ‘Oh, wow, you can buy that?’ Creepy data.”
The data doesn’t even need to leak or transfer hands — its mere existence can have a chilling effect on democratic participation. Word has already spread through the more professional protester circles to leave cellphones at home, toggle them to airplane mode or simply power them off. Many antifascist protesters show up to rallies covering their faces to protect their identities from hate groups, the police and the press. “But that means you’re only getting the diehards to show.... We tell people don’t bring your phone to protests or if you do, keep GPS off at the very least… The more secure you are the less able you are to organize,” an antifascist researcher told us. He agreed to be quoted only if we did not reveal his name.
Joshua Wong, the activist who helped drive Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement and is now a key figure in the city’s continuing protests, said that omnipresent tracking has fundamentally changed the democratic protests in Hong Kong. “In the past, they feel like, if they are not activists or high-profile figures, they are safe from surveillance as they have nothing to hide,” he said. “But they have come to realize recently that surveillance poses a threat to them as more are involved in the protest, and even if they are not high-profile, the government would also target them.”
Even those we identified in the data who were public about their activism were unnerved by their movements’ getting catalogued in databases that can be bought, sold, merged or hacked.
“Personally, I’m happy to protest Trump and have people knowing about it,” said Eric Hensal, who lives in Takoma Park, Md., and appeared in the dataset at a 2016 picket line protest at the Trump Hotel in Washington. “But there’s so much somebody, say, a state actor could determine just by a travel pattern. It’s honestly frightening.”
Granular surveillance is still new. But some experts argue the window to define our cultural values around tracking citizens may be closing. Mr. Tsui, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, argued that there are three current competing visions for the internet built by China, the United States and the European Union. China is moving fast and breaking things, including civil rights. The E.U., with its focus on privacy, is making a moral point around surveillance and consent. And the United States, with its powerful tech companies, is caught in the middle, trying to weigh ethical concerns while still pushing forward on innovation for fear of being left behind by China. If China pushes forward, skirting human rights via technology, and the United States follows, Mr. Tsui argued that America could see an uptick in using surveillance, data and artificial intelligence to manipulate and change behavior and direct outcomes. “I hope we don’t end up there,” he said.
Location data is already part of the 2020 race for the White House. Political action committees for Republicans and Democrats have invested in location data to target voters based on their interest. For example, companies are enlisting data brokers to help monitor the movements of churchgoers to find conservative-leaning voters and sway their votes.
In company documents from 2017, Phunware, a Texas-based technology company, describes the race to collect location data to target voters as a “gold rush,” suggesting that “as soon as the first few political campaigns realize the value of mobile ad targeting for voter engagement, the floodgates will open. Which campaigns will get there first and strike it rich?”
The company reportedly signed a deal with American Made Media Consultants, a company set up by the Trump campaign manager, Brad Parscale, to offer location collection services. Phunware touts voters’ smartphones as “the ultimate voter file.” Its marketing claims that mobile data can tell campaigns “everything from the device operating system (iOS or Android) to what other apps are on the device, what Wi-Fi networks the device joins and much more. And that doesn’t even cover the information it’s possible to infer, such as gender, age, lifestyle preferences and so on.”
These are, of course, just the early days. Much of the political manipulation happening now looks no different from serving up a standard political ad at the right moment. The future, however, could get dark quickly. Political candidates rich in location data could combine it with financial information and other personally identifiable details to build deep psychographic profiles designed to manipulate and push voters in unseen directions. Would-be autocrats or despots could leverage this information to misinform or divide voters and keep political enemies from showing up to the polls on election day.
Then, once in power, they could leverage their troves of data to intimidate activists and squash protests. Those brave enough to rebel might be tracked and followed to their homes. At the very least, their names could be put into registries.
Public dissent could quickly become too risky a proposition, given that the record of one’s attendance at a rally could be held against them at a later date. Big Data, once the domain of marketers, could become a means to elevate dictators to power and then frustrate attempts to remove them.
It is not difficult, in other words, to imagine a system of social control arising from infrastructure built for advertising. That’s why regulation is critical. “It is very clear from the examples of the intersection of authoritarianism and surveillance that we’ve seen around the world that a privacy bill of rights is absolutely necessary,” said Edward Markey, the Massachusetts senator who wrote the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. “Privacy needs to start being seen as a human right.”
Carlo Ratti, a professor at M.I.T. and director of its Senseable City Lab, echoed the senator’s concerns. “The present path is untenable,” he told us. “If you have asymmetrical control of information, it is very dangerous. Whether it’s companies or states, they can crush political opponents before they can band together. If we go this route, it is very dangerous and very volatile.”
If Hong Kong has taught the world anything, it is that surveillance systems, once in place, are nearly impossible to uproot.
“I think Hong Kong citizens are worried that they are retroactively surveilled,” Mr. Wong, the activist, said. “As there are more reports revealing the effort and attempts of Beijing in monitoring its people, Hong Kong-ers are worried that they have been subjected to the same treatment.”
Over time, protest could become the exclusive right of those with the means to safeguard themselves technologically, including having a second, “burner” phone. “It’s technologically possible to be anonymous, but it’s hard,” Mr. Tsui told us. “You can only protect privacy with tech right now, and so only those who have money and knowledge can do it. But privacy is not just for the rich or geeks. Privacy is for everyone.”
Even in non-authoritarian countries, the future of unfettered mobile surveillance seems likely to force dissenters into difficult decisions. “The way I see it, there’s two directions this could all go. It could force people to embrace the danger of full exposure,” the antifascist researcher and protester said. “Or things go way underground. And things continue to heat up. It forces governments and other organizations to get more and more militant toward each other.”
The future for the world’s activists may look increasingly like Hong Kong. The leaderless protest movement of the past six months has been made possible by technology. The messageboard LIHKG and encrypted chat apps like Telegram have allowed for the kind of organization that has kept the protests going. But the movement has also been undermined by the very same technology. Protesters and journalists and even law enforcement have been doxxed (had their private information published) by the thousands. A real-time location tracking app used by protesters to identify the positions of law enforcement was taken down by Apple’s App Store — suggesting that governments will have a competitive advantage when it comes to the resource.
And while protesters have rebelled by wearing masks, blocking government cameras with lasers and even tearing down lampposts they suspected were outfitted with beacons and surveillance equipment, their efforts are being quietly undermined by the spies in their pockets. Like the rest of us, they are only as secure as the least secure apps on their phones.
The hundreds of thousands of phones that light up the sky in places like Hong Kong are the expression of peaceful opposition to authority. But the inspiring images and the democratic spirit the glittering devices represent only work if the lights are eventually able to vanish.
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|Source: New York Times, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson, 21 DEc 2019|
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