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October 20, 2014

What Your Gadgets Know About You

If you’re like most Smartphone owners, you’ve probably grown to depend on your phone’s GPS to get you where you need to go, find you restaurants and movies in your area, even tell you when your loved ones are nearby. But how much of that information is being stored or shared with your cellphone manufacturer, service provider or the makers of all those apps? Here are some of the surprising things our gadgets know about us.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “What’s the harm in having my phone or service provider track my whereabouts? I’m not doing anything particularly exciting.”
Yet the general acceptance of an increasing number of applications having access to your location, as well as more and more data about your habits being reported back to your service provider, can erode a Smartphone users’ grasp of their own privacy.

As an extreme example of how your phone’s tracking and reporting can be detrimental, in Florida a murder suspect’s phone was recently used against him in court. It was found that the suspect, a man accused of kidnapping and strangling, then drowning his roommate, had a Siri screenshot stored in his phone where Siri responds to “I need to hide my roommate.” Siri, jokester that she is, offered up swamps, reservoirs, metal foundries and dumps. While the screenshot generated from Facebook, not an actual inquiry made by the suspect, it was stored on the phone and presented as evidence at trial.

His GPS was also used to show that his phone, at least, wasn’t where the suspect said that he was on the night of the murder. It’s something that any location-enabled device would have reported, but since many of us carry our phones everywhere we go, the suspect likely didn’t even consider the possibility that the records of his whereabouts were being reported back to his cell service provider, perhaps even the servers of whatever mapping application he utilized, where the information was able to be accessed later by law enforcement.

I also found it interesting that police investigators were able to determine from the suspect’s phone that the iPhone’s flashlight was used nine times over a 48-minute period on the night the crime occurred. I didn’t even know that my flashlight activity was something being stored historically. Does that mean I look suspicious because I take the dog out late at night?

While it’s certainly true that so long as you don’t break the law, you’re not likely to have anything worse than targeted marketing result from your searches and online activities —– at least for now — the fact that the information is stored and accessible has some troubling connotations for privacy in civil disputes. What if your ex can have your phone’s records used against you in divorce proceedings? Or if your employer could use your mobile device’s GPS records to see that you aren’t really home sick like you claim.

In 2012, the 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police can obtain location data sent from your phone without a warrant. Judge John Rogers explained that a cellphone user has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by a voluntarily-procured cellphone. The 5th Circuit Court ruled last year that historical location data stored by your cell provider could be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant because the data isn’t actually yours — it is collected and owned by the service provider.

What can you do if you’d rather NOT share your personal habits and whereabouts with your cell service provider and a multitude of apps? If you want to use the handy features like GPS and location-specific searches for restaurants, gas stations, movies and more, you’re stuck accepting that the information about where you are at any given time is going to be stored on a server somewhere “out there.”

While you probably won’t get much out of your Smartphone if you permanently disable location tracking, you can limit the data shared to some extent. On an iPhone or other Apple mobile device, go to Settings – Privacy – Location Services and flip the green switch to off for any apps that you don’t want to have access to your location information. I’d also recommend that you go to Settings – Privacy – Advertising and toggle ON the switch next to “Limit Ad Tracking” to reduce the amount of information shared between different apps on your phone.

On an Android device, go to Accounts – Google – Ads and click “opt out of interest-based ads.”

If you have stronger privacy concerns, consider disabling your location tracking when you don’t need it, or if you’re planning to partake in some nefarious activities.


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Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds On Call, which offers onsite computer and laptop repair service for homeowners and small businesses. Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at www.callnerds.com/andrea.

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