The web is alive with news that Apple’s iPhone and Google Android smartphones regularly send unencrypted information about users’ locations back to Google and Apple. This means that, for years, these companies have been logging where we are, and when, and not telling us about it. It took a stumble-upon by researchers playing with stored cellphone data to discover the truth.
My friend Jody asked me, “Why should we care about this?” It took a little while, but now I’ve got a few reasons.
It’s pretty much public knowledge from crime shows that police can track your location using your cell phone signal. This action, however, often requires a subpoena, and when officers don’t get one, they’re open to lawsuit or evidence dismissal. To me, it seems the same principle as officers not allowed inside your house without a search warrant or “probable cause.” Tracking your location at any minute, and your historical locations throughout the life of your cell phone, is freakin’ scary, and at least as personal as searching your house.
[expand title="Click the arrow to continue reading."]So for cell phone companies to quietly do this all on their own just because they can is an intrusion on personal privacy and, much more important, private property. Since when should companies, much less the government, surveil customers at will? I don’t care if it’s just because they want to sell us a better-tailored Groupon—what a trivial reason for such an egregious imposition!
And here we get into those bigger-picture arguments about “oh, but it could produce so many benefits, like stopping and incarcerating drug dealers and, after all, it’s just a Groupon…” But the problem here is that once government (or, weirdly in this case, business) assumes the right to prevent crime or enforce ever-tightening circles of regulation on minute aspects of our life (like the fact that the feds can technically regulate breathing because it emits CO2), where does it stop? It doesn’t.
Really, people, this is why we have a constitution. To limit government. Because, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, men are not angels; we need government. But if we are to be self-governed, those men governing are not angels, either, and need some restraint from fixed, outside principles, themselves. (This, by the way, is a leading argument for believing in God, but we will certainly discuss that in the future.)
This brings up a myriad of complexity within multinational corporations and such that I’m not mentally prepared to discuss. But at the very least I think we can say that, when operating in the United States, companies must follow U.S. law. Since the Constitution is U.S. law… it’s a simple syllogism, draw that conclusion yourself. I will say, however, that it’s a curious turn to have companies large enough to act like a government. That’s not surprising, however, given that our government is so little tied to the ideas of limited government that companies gain by lobbying for personal benefits and thus learn to bully like a government bureaucrat. I hear big corporate culture is as annoying and bureaucratic as big government culture—43 people required to sign off on the font size on a report and such.
Google’s motto is supposedly “Don’t be evil.” Yes, they and Apple will lose money if they offer users an opt-out-of-tracking option. But to monitor free individuals simply to make money off them? That’s a form of slavery, which I call evil.
UPDATE: My clear-thinking husband has pointed out a large hole in my thoughts, namely that Apple and Google can’t force you to buy their things like government can, so the Constitution doesn’t really apply here. I was more mentally using it as a measure of principles for institutional restraint, but still. I still think it unethical of such companies not to at least disclose this. But Nathaniel also mentioned why they haven’t: because they know people wouldn’t like it. Which is why they should disclose it.
Image by William Hook.[/expand]