Your Phone is Not Your Friend

The other day I posted an article on my feed about how the US Immigration service is using cell phone location data to track immigrants. In light of this article, I feel it a good time to remind you that cell phones are not your friends.

The Problem

Cell phones are 24/7 GPS surveillance devices, constantly leaking data at all times. At any given time, your phone is broadcasting your location. It’s also usually broadcasting a bunch of other information such as WiFi connection information and usage data. Recently, Privacy International found that some devices and apps even transmit personally identifying information such as name, date of birth, and gender without using any type of encryption or security measures. Even within the device itself, there’s a messy web of apps requesting information that they don’t really need and transferring that information to their own creators, leaking even more information about people who didn’t consent to having their information shared to people who don’t need it. (Source, just one of many.)

The Reminder

Phones have made life incredibly easy and convenient in so many ways, and as usual I’m not here to decry the rise of technology. Technology is fantastic and I love it. I have a phone. I have a smart TV. I use decentralized social media. But remember that our phones have been usurped as surveillance devices, constantly betraying us. Our messages, our locations – which are then correlated with other phone locations to create a network of who we know, further creating a startlingly accurate guess at our socio-economic status and a whole host of other things – even the games we play and shows we watch. It’s all being collected at all times for various ends. Some companies just want to sell things to us, some agencies want to catch the bad guys, and a small few of powerful people want to control things. The more data they have, the easier it is to do that. If you need a reminder of how this power can be abused, just take a moment to browse through this page.

The Solution

It’s hard to recommend a course of action. I personally have taken to simply leaving my phone at home as much as possible. If I’m going out to dinner with my partner, I pay in cash and leave the phone at home. After all, my goal is to spend time with her. Leaving my phone not only ensures that “they” don’t know where I went, but also keeps me from getting an email or browsing memes when I should be spending time with her. I’ve also taken to doing as little as possible on my phone. I have Signal and Wire both loaded onto my computer, as well as my password manager. I try to keep my phone as clean as possible of apps, only keeping those that I absolutely need to do my job or be responsive as needed. Even though my phone still betrays my location, I try to replace my map app with something like OSMAnd, an open source navigator, to mitigate the amount of data reported. I believe I may have mentioned that I stopped sleeping with my phone in my room a few months ago and replaced it with an old-school digital alarm clock (not the smart kind, the $10 “just tells time and beeps real loud” kind).

As with most things, reasonably abandoning my phone hasn’t had any negative impacts and if anything has only made my life better. I sleep better, I focus more on where I’m at, and I tend to be more in-the-moment. Again, I’m the last person to decry technology, and obviously some of us can’t turn our phones off when we go home, but the goal of this post is not to tell you what to do. Just to give you a quick reminder that your phone, while undoubtedly having improved your life in many ways, is not your friend. Don’t forget that. Keep it on as short a leash as you reasonably can.

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