Monday, February 8, 2021

#39 / Their Apps Betrayed Them

On Saturday, February 6, 2021, The New York Times ran an article by Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson. The headline on the hard-copy version of the article said, "Capitol Mob's Phone Apps Betrayed Them." The message of the article was that our cellphones are collecting, at all times, a detailed record of our physical location. This is true whether or not we permit the applications on our phones to use "location services." 

Cellphones work by communicating with cell towers that pick up the signals from our phones, and then relay those signals on, whenever we become involved in a call, or when we use some application that requires network or internet connectivity. However, even if we are not actually "using" our phone to make a call or to access the internet, our phones and the nearest available cell tower are in continuing contact. Since the location of each cell tower is precisely known, anyone who can access "Cell Site Location Information," so-called CSLI, can pretty much pinpoint the location, at all times, of any cellphone user. 

If you didn't know this before, now you do. I can guarantee you that every student in my Legal Studies class at the University of California, Santa Cruz has definitely been made aware of the implications of this technology. My course is titled, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," and hopefully you can see that issues of privacy and freedom are most definitely implicated in our use of cellphones. 

The Supreme Court has held, in a very important case, Carpenter v. United States, that law enforcement authorities must get a search warrant, based on some probable cause, before they can access CSLI for a specified person. Read The Times' article (paywall permitting) and you will learn that a "source," perhaps someone within a telephone company, was easily able to get access to CSLI for those involved in the January 6th insurrection, and then decided to "leak" such information, which is one way that The Times has been able to prove who was actually involved.

The source shared this information, in part, because the individual was outraged by the events of Jan. 6. The source wanted answers, accountability, justice. The person was also deeply concerned about the privacy implications of this surreptitious data collection. Not just that it happens, but also that most consumers don’t know it is being collected and it is insecure and vulnerable to law enforcement as well as bad actors — or an online mob — who might use it to inflict harm on innocent people. (The source asked to remain anonymous because the person was not authorized to share the data and could face severe penalties for doing so.)

“What if instead of going to you, I wanted to publish it myself?” the source told us. “What if I were vengeful? There’s nothing preventing me from doing that. It’s totally available. If I had different motives, all it would take is a few clicks, and everyone could see it (emphasis added).”

So, heads up, folks. Tin foil hats, unfortunately, are unlikely to provide a workable solution!

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