March 5th, 2015

To Beep or Not to Beep: The Ups and Downs of Smartphone Privacy

 By Eliza Cohen

On February 19, the Intercept revealed that spies at GCHQ (Britain’s equivalent to the NSA) had stolen hundreds of thousands of encryption keys coded into Gemalto SIM cards in order to access conversations and data. The story was based on documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden, the government contractor who began to publicly disclose classified NSA documents in June 2013.

On the heels of this latest report, The Economist has published a two-story briefing in its issue of February 28. In “Smartphone Security: The Spy in Your Pocket,” the magazine paints a harrowing picture of cellular security, described as “mostly an afterthought in a booming industry that has always seen market share as the priority.” Organizations such as the NSA have entire departments whose job it is to breach cell phone encryptions and other protective mechanisms. Criminal malware is described as an ever-growing industry, and an alarming number of apps are guilty of transmitting unencrypted data that may be read at will. Though industry players and consumers are cognizant of data protection issues, The Economist writes that “there is still a lot for the industry and its users to learn.”

In its second briefing, “Planet of the Smartphones,” The Economist plays its own devil’s advocate. The magazine enumerates three benefits that militate against the threat to privacy posed by smartphones. First, “the same phones that allow governments to spy on their citizens also record the brutality of officials and spread information and dissenting opinions.” Thus, the magazine writes that smartphones empower the ordinary individual to challenge government authoritarianism. Second, the same personal data that companies may seek to exploit can also used to advance the public good. Smartphones are described as “digital census-takers” that create an unprecedentedly detailed view of society in real time. This data may be used for a variety of social purposes, including crime prevention and the monitoring of global epidemics. Third, The Economist holds that smartphones provide immense economic benefit. Smartphones have the potential to remake entire industries at lightning speed. The phone itself is the platform, which is conducive to the development of cheap startups (like WhatsApp and Uber) that may one day be valued in the millions or billions. Though cell phones present important privacy considerations, The Economist opines that society must adapt to these new realities, and develop norms and methods of accountability for smartphone use.

The Economist is right about one thing: the smartphone has changed the world, and is an invaluable source of economic and social good. However, by focusing on the benefits that accrue from smartphone usage, the magazine is adopting an oversimplified approach to information privacy. The mere fact that cellular data may be used to advance the public good is not a justification for the breach of privacy on a universal scale. In Riley v. California, the court states: “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of protection.” Smartphones may be used to combat authoritarian regimes, to aggregate useful data, and to remake entire industries — but not at the expense of global privacy. Widespread government spying and corporate data-mining are not necessary corollaries of cell phone usage. Though data monitoring may be necessary in certain instances for the purposes of national security, these usages should be circumscribed, and governments must be held accountable for their actions to the greatest extent possible. In United States v. Warshak, the court held that “the Fourth Amendment must keep pace with the inexorable march of technological progress, or its guarantees will whither and perish.” Since the NSA wiretapping scandal first came to light, it has become glaringly apparent that the age of “reasonable” privacy is over, and that we are more in need of Fourth Amendment protections now than ever before. Yes, The Economist is correct in stating that cell phones are “ubiquitous, addictive and transformative” — but ultimately, at what cost?