There’s a nice piece in Sunday’s New York Times about the huge and growing demand for surveillance information from wireless carriers by law enforcement agencies local to federal. Apparently, wireless carriers responded to 1.3M such requests last year, up sharply from last year.
Remember the days not so very long ago when in crime shows the only thing you saw the police doing was trying to keep the kidnapper on the phone for 30 seconds to complete a trace to some payphone somewhere? These days, it’s dumps of all subscribers near a certain tower during some time window, or current real-time positioning, or any number of other things. Despite all the flack Google and others have gotten for collecting data they oughtn’t, there’s one heck of a lot that’s already getting used.
But with smartphones taking over, really we’re not just talking about tracking phone usage here. All connectivity is basically trackable: laptops accessing Wi-Fi networks, Kindle Fires and Nook Tablets downloading new books, even those new Google Glasses. People are often carrying multiple devices at any given time, through each of which they generate so much data… Just think how much there will be in a few years relative to today.
I think we’d just better admit to ourselves that privacy no longer exists in any real sense. It’s just over. Any legal protections might slow down law enforcement, but not those with fewer scruples. In a truly mobile world with a few billion endpoints that are each potentially hackable, you’ll never know who is watching – just as scifi author David Brin forecast almost 15 years ago in The Transparent Society. The difference though is that it’s not public except to law enforcement and those with the money or skills to get it via other means – and you have to know that’s coming.
The other interesting angle, though, is who is paying for law enforcement’s ability to collect and analyze all this data. While the carriers can bill the FBI and police for some things, just having the infrastructure in place to process 1.3M sensitive requests for otherwise private data can’t be cheap, and it will only get worse when that number jumps by another factor of 10. We’ll be paying for this ability to be tracked in higher bills of course. I wonder if before long this won’t start appearing as yet another fee or tax that shows up on the bill in addition to basic service etc.