Friday, December 20, 2019

The Spy in Your Pocket

The New York Times has been given a huge data file which holds more than 50 billion location records from the phones of more than 12 million Americans. This file helps to reveal how dozens of companies are using mobile phones apps to track the movements of people during the course of their everyday lives.

The NYT's article, Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy, is superbly illustrated with a number of maps. These maps help to illustrate both the huge number of people whose locations are being tracked and the huge amount of location data which is being tracked for each and every person who owns a mobile phone. The Times animates location data on top of satellite images of a number of locations to show the scale of the location tracking which is taking place. As the data is added these images become completely obscured, perfectly illustrating the ubiquity of how many people are being tracked by their phones and how phone owners are being tracked almost everywhere they go.

Many mobile phone apps insist that their tracking data is completely anonymous and that individuals can not be identified from their location data. The NYT shows how this claim is completely spurious and how easy it is to identify individuals from tracking data. Home and work locations are very easy to identify in most individual's mapped data and from there it isn't difficult to establish the identity of any individual.

The Times article includes a satellite map of Manhattan overlaid with the location of just one individual (the data is obscured to protect the real identity of the person). This image shows how by connecting all the individual location pings you can reveal a diary of a person's life. The image illustrates just how easy it can be to identify an individual from the patterns of their daily movements.

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