The Many Ways Police Can Access User Data

January 14, 2021

We hope that by now, dear reader, you understand digital privacy is an illusion. For those curious about the relationship between big tech, personal data, and law enforcement, we suggest “How Your Digital Trials Wind Up in the Hands of the Police,” shared by Ars Technica. The article, originally published by Wired, begins by describing how police used a Google keyword warrant to track down one high-profile suspect. We’re reminded that data gathered for one ostensible purpose, like building an online profile, can be repurposed as evidence. From the smart speakers and wearable devices that record us to apps that track location and other data, users are increasingly signing away their privacy rights. Writer Sidney Fussell notes:

“The problem isn’t just any individual app, but an over-complicated, under-scrutinized system of data collection. In December, Apple began requiring developers to disclose key details about privacy policies in a ‘nutritional label’ for apps. Users ‘consent’ to most forms of data collection when they click ‘Agree’ after downloading an app, but privacy policies are notoriously incomprehensible, and people often don’t know what they’re agreeing to. An easy-to-read summary like Apple’s nutrition label is useful, but not even developers know where the data their apps collect will eventually end up.”

Amid protests over policing and racial profiling, several tech companies are reevaluating their cooperation with law enforcement. Amazon hit pause on sales of facial recognition tech to police even as it noted an increase in requests for user data by law enforcement. Google vowed to focus on better representation, education, and support for the Black community. Even so, it continues to supply police with data in response to geofence warrants. These requests are being made of Google and other firms more and more often. Fussell writes:

“As with keyword warrants, police get anonymized data on a large group of people for whom no tailored warrant has been filed. Between 2017 and 2018, Google reported a 1,500 percent increase in geofence requests. Apple, Uber, and Snapchat also have received similar requests for the data of a large group of anonymous users. … These warrants allow police to rapidly accelerate their ability to access our private information. In some cases, the way apps collect data on us turns them into surveillance tools that rival what police could collect even if they were bound to traditional warrants.”

Civil rights groups are pushing back on these practices. Meanwhile, users would do well to pause and consider before hitting “Agree.”

Cynthia Murrell, January 14, 2021

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