By Philip Baczewski, executive director, University IT
A recent report I saw claims that over 70 percent of internet use worldwide happens on smartphones. By 2019, that figure could rise to 80 percent of all internet access. It goes without saying that, for many of us, a large portion of our lives is centered around our phones. It's our primary method of communication, with the telephone aspect of the device likely subsidiary to texting, email, or social media. We do our banking and shopping on our phones. Its the primary source of news and information and our mobile device has become our goto entertainment platform, especially when we find ourselves immobile in a waiting room or on an airplane.
For a while, we've been comparing smartphones to 1980s supercomputers and it is this tremendous computing power in our pockets that allows for all of the extensive set of phone-based activities. However, it is the network connectivity that enables the flow of information and services. In urban areas, we are never out of range with the cellular network, and so we are able to maintain a constant connection to the internet (thank you, Hedy Lamarr.)
Given our dependence on smartphones, a case recently heard before the U.S. Supreme Court could have a long-lasting effect personal privacy. The main question in Carpenter v. United States is whether a law enforcement agency has the right to warrantless access to records showing where and when a particular phone has connected to a particular cellular transceiver. This information, collected by cell phone companies, can provide a record of the location and movements of any cell phone user (reported to be 95 percent of Americans.)
The arguments of this case before the court indicate that there may be some consensus against warrantless access to the records in question. However, we'll have to await the decision of the court (usually announced in June of a particular term.) The outcome of this case could set a strong precedent for extending the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections to our electronic lives or it could allow unprecedented surveillance by law enforcement and others who can gain access to cellular location data.
As if court cases like this weren't enough to worry about, researchers at Yale recently identified numerous instances of tracking software in over 300 Android apps. The tracking software performs functions like reporting crash diagnostics back to the app developer, or logging website visits for inclusion in web traffic analytics. Not all tracking activity is necessarily nefarious or even bad (in the case where it can help improve the app), but researchers have pointed out that use of tracking code may lead to the collection of various kinds of information, all without the explicit consent of the user.
A list of affected apps is available, telling what tracker software may be deployed. It may not be necessary to give up all the apps on the list, but it does point out that you should pay attention to what access is given to any app when it is installed and modify those permissions (if your phone OS allows) when there is a concern for protecting the information being accessed. Sometimes this comes down to a decision between maximal security and privacy versus the convenience of using the app. For example, Facebook login code is considered a tracker. It's convenient to use your Facebook login to access various services like Instagram or Amazon shopping. However, when you do so, you are providing app usage information and possibly more to Facebook. And if you iPhone users are feeling smug right now, it's pointed out these same tracking functions are available for and likely used in iOS apps as well.
...If They're Really Out to Get You
Concerns about privacy and the internet are not a new thing. Back in 1995, when Benchmarks introduced the relatively brand new World Wide Web, Aaron Price noted, "A person's right to privacy is just as blurry in cyberspace as it is sitting at home in front of the TV. In both worlds, one must contend with issues of encryption, censorship, active viewing controls, and now new governmental regulation."
A tagline to the Will Smith movie, Enemy of the State is, "It's not paranoia if they're really after you." That 1998 film seems eerily prescient now given that the plot centers around legislation that dramatically expands the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies like the NSA over private individuals and groups. Online privacy has been a recurring topic of this column, including the June 2014 discussion of internet-enabled appliances and the balance between convenience and security/privacy: "We should have the confidence not only to be secure in our homes but to be secure with our things as well." It seems to be deja vu all over again.