Since One Nation, Tracked was published in The New York Times last month, The Washington Post has published an investigation into how colleges across the United States are using short-range phone sensors and campus-wide wi-fi networks to track students. Here’s what these investigations found and why it matters.
Using cell phone data, The New York Times writers were able to track a Pentagon employee at work, to their child’s school, on to a friend’s house, and home. And while you may not have the potential for personal security risk a Pentagon worker with security clearance is likely to have, your privacy is your security as well.
Your privacy should be yours and yours alone. If we as a culture find stalking to be a criminal invasion of privacy and a threat to safety, then why do we tolerate companies stalking us via our cell phone data? It reveals where your children go to school, where you work and live, and where you choose to spend your time, and it is bought and sold practically in real time by third parties intent on profiting from the invasion of your privacy and security.
These data are not broad strokes of anonymous data–they reveal portraits of lives in such detail that any assumption of anonymity would be naive. The authors of One Nation, Tracked deftly draw outlined lives revealed through cell phone data, from that Pentagon worker to an LA resident tracked from celebrities’ homes to seedy no-tell motels.
Meanwhile . . .
On the heels of this story came the WaPo story revealing how colleges across the United States are using short-range phone sensors and campus-wide wi-fi networks to physically track students, monitor their academic performance, analyze their conduct, and assess their individual mental health. That’s right–colleges are profiling students–as individuals and as demographic groups–based on the data they collect from tracking them. And while they were using the data to assess mental health in some instances, there was no indication given of the data, conclusions about a student’s mental health, or the actions taken by administrators to “address” the health issue (whether real or perceived) being protected as it would be under HIPAA. The investigation revealed that, predictably, students weren’t aware of the extent to which college administrators were tracking them.
What to Do?
Being aware of the extent to which your phone data provides a clear picture of your life to anyone who can access that data is a start. The next step: coming to grips with the fact that anonymous data isn’t really anonymous. At that point you decide how much your privacy and security mean to you.
If you are a student, find out if your campus tracks students via their phones. There are over 40 that do. If your college is tracking students, ask questions and advocate for yourself–you deserve to know what data is being collected and how it is being used and stored.
Want to reclaim control of your data and its sale to third parties? On January first, many companies with whom you do business enacted amendments to their privacy policies to conform with the new California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). (Read The CCPA: What It Is, What It Means, and What You Can Do) Take advantage of the control over your data the CCPA affords you and, of course, opt out of invasive tracking whenever you have the option.