There’s an enormous amount of misperception, cluelessness, and uncertainty about the implications of carrying a cell phone which I’d like to address.
For years, people have lived in blissful ignorance about the potential implications of putting GPS devices in cell phones and uploading vast amounts of personal information to the web. Who doesn’t like to play Angry Birds, use Google Maps, or upload a sunset to their Facebook page? Who hasn’t thanked Apple for including free location tracking on their phone if it’s lost or stolen? Last Tuesday, however, the Ukrainian government provided hard evidence that governments are using cell phones to geo-track citizens and implicate them in “anti-government activities.” Governments (including the United States) have been cagey about whether they collect and keep location data on average citizens, but last week’s mass text sent to Ukrainian protesters makes even the most paranoid technophobe seem prescient.
The behavior of the Ukrainian government (as well as Edward Snowden’s ongoing revelations) are beginning to reveal the extent to which the information war is being won by governments. We like to think that cell phones and social media have given citizens the advantage in overthrowing bad leaders and repressive regimes. What’s becoming clear, however, is that governments are two steps ahead of citizens in terms of personal communications technology (and the secrecy by which they guard their information).
People still don’t yet understand the full implications of a world in which governments can monitor and track citizens at all times. Many believe that they become “invisible” by turning off their smartphone or putting it in airplane mode. This is not true. Others believe they can evade tracking by turning off the GPS function on their cell phones. This also does not work.
The problem is that there are at least three ways in which governments can monitor the location of individual citizens.
- The old-fashioned way. The exact position of every cell phone can be located by triangulating the pings cell phones send to multiple cell phone towers in their vicinity. Individuals can avoid this old-fashioned type of tracking by turning off their cell phones or putting their cell phone on airplane mode, but they can still be tracked using other means.
- GPS. Phones with GPS devices likely can be tracked even if they are shut off and in airplane mode. I say “likely” because no one (not Google, not Apple, not Snowden) has confirmed that this is possible. But my technologically sophisticated colleagues strongly suspect that the GPS signal continues to be sent even when the phone appears inactive.
- Wi-Fi connections. Cell phones tapping into wi-fi connections can also be easily located. Again, turning phones “off” as one is travelling abroad or in the car is no guarantee that the phones are actually off. A recent front page story in the New York Times outlined all the ways in which spy agencies can use streams of data emanating from smartphones to locate individuals.
There is still much we don’t know about how personal data from cell phones and internet connections can be collected and used. Those who do have inside information on these processes (spy agencies, telecom companies, Facebook, Google, etc.) have incentives to keep this information private and keep smartphone users unaware of the extent of their activities.
What can citizens do to protect themselves, especially if they are protesters pressuring governments to reform? My colleague Roger Bohn discusses this issue on his excellent blog “The Art and Science in Technology.” Here’s a condensed version of his recommendations:
The best thing protesters can do is leave their phone at home. This seems like the obvious choice as long as there is no guaranteed way to remain undetected while carrying a phone. Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it plays into the hands of governments who would like to impede demonstrators’ communications. Ukrainian protesters will have a much more difficult time mobilizing support and gaining international attention if real-time communication and videos stop.
The next best thing is to do what Edward Snowden did. Place an electromagnetic barrier around your phone to block radio signals. Snowden used a refrigerator but it appears that any metal container, such as a cocktail shaker, would also work. This strategy has the benefit of being more portabl,e but the drawback of being potentially detectable if one’s phone comes too close to a cell tower.
What all of this tells us is that we are in the midst of the “wild west” of clandestine information gathering. What’s clear is that there is a huge asymmetry between what most citizens understand about how their information is being used and what industry and governments know. This gives governments the big advantage — but this asymmetry appears to be changing. The more information Snowden reveals, the more average citizens will understand about how technology works and is being used. And the more they understand, the better able they will be to protect themselves and their information from being used against them.