In this day and age, privacy is a commodity to bought, traded, and sold. Whether it’s the government tracking what you do or advertisers (who can also give that information to governments), someone knows more about you than you would think or like.
The US government has been tracking individuals worldwide with a program called Co-Traveler which is designed to track your location, and when you turn your phone on and off. The last part is more interesting, as it opens up doorways to knowing who someone is without asking the phone company exactly who that is.
Let’s use myself as an example. I currently use a prepaid carrier in the UK, and I’ve never had to hand over any information about myself. Let’s assume for the moment that I used cash at the Heathrow airport for the SIM card as the vending machines allow that. If I always pay in cash (which I happen to do out of convenience), any government might not have any idea of who I am in regards to my phone number. Sure, they could check the security camera footage and try to match it to a database for visas, but that’s too complicated for what they could do.
If I know that a phone was turned off at an airport and turned back on at another airport, I could determine in theory which flight that person was on. I could then get the flight manifest to determine which individuals were on that flight. Let’s say the government doesn’t know a single person on the flight’s identity. A best case scenario (or worst depending on your perspective) Boeing 747-400 can only hold 345 passengers, which immediately narrows down the number of people my phone could be. An Airbus 318-100, on the other hand, can only seat thirty-two individuals and makes things far more trivial. And with the longer I stay at the other location, the more distinct my phone number will be in terms of identifying an individual.
Let me explain. The odds of the same person being on the exact same flight back are not unlikely at all, as I’ve seen some people both ways before. However, the longer I stay, the more likely it is for the remaining individuals to have already returned or traveled to another destination (same with an extremely quick turnaround). It would be entirely possible for one trip (one flight out and one flight back) to identify who I am in regards to my cell phone without having to determine who I am with the carrier. This doesn’t even factor in the process of elimination that can be done along the way with identifying the other individuals on the flight.
Although it would take more effort, it could still be done without the other airport’s assistance (i.e. only Heathrow as an example), as long as it could be determined where I was on the runway and which aircraft was at the same location. The most trustworthy information would when the aircraft landed and if the individual turned the phone off after the plane had pushed from the gate.
In private hands, a free application on Android called Brightest Flashlight was recording their user’s locations and passing on their location to advertisers even if you opted out. Android finally brought in some location controls with 4.3, but it has the potential to break the application if it doesn’t have the proper permissions or even be an option to users of certain devices. I myself am currently stuck at 4.2 because the company has not ordained an upgrade to my phone, so I cannot take advantage of it. I truly appreciate iOS’s controls for information, as the application cannot carte-blanche decide it needs to know everything and break itself when it doesn’t get it.
In times of silliness, I like to imagine a sort of privacy stock market with different people’s information being traded on the open market. There would be shares of myself and my information being clamored over, people shouting indiscriminately and the futures of information being bet on. “We think he will make a large purchase soon that will allow us to track him even better than we can now, and are forecasting a 20% increase in information year-over-year.” I can only imagine what dividends would be, perhaps a random fact that is useful or my current weight.
The phrase is that when something is free, you are the product and we are far too quick to give ourselves away. After all, if it’s not tangible, it’s an endless commodity, right? With the advent of technology that can tell us where we are whenever we like, we have to remember the other side of the coin: it can tell someone else where you are wherever you like. Whether it’s someone targeting you for ads or a foreign or local government learning all of your secrets, we must be wary not to give up the essence of what makes us who we are: individuality and privacy. It is most difficult for someone to misuse information they don’t have.