By Shivaji Sengupta
The aphorism, the medium is the message, was first coined by Marshal McLuhan. It became world famous. By it, Dr. McLuhan, known as the first guru of the electronic age, meant that when a new invention arrives, consumer get so taken up with what it can do, they ignore it’s potential long term effects. Take the railway train, for example. It could transport people far and wide, making it possible for men to leave their villages to work in large cities. Consequently, while their economic life improved, it resulted in many broken families.
Once again we find ourselves immersed in a legal controversy, this time the result of another life changing invention. Except this one involves not us “us” in the U.S., but the whole world. I am talking about inscriptions: the emails and texts we write, the music we hear, films we see, the food we eat…the list goes on. All of a sudden we are told that literally everything we do with and in our cell phones, the whole world can know! There is no privacy anymore. Nothing we think of as our own, is our own.
How did this happen? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind! Bob Dylan sang. Ever since the 1990s the cell phone has become for ever ubiquitous. From making phone calls, the device has grown to include just about everything. Its number has grown exponentially so that there are more phones than people in this world. And with it, not an explosion of information but a Big Bang!
Everything we do, is data. The word, from ancient Sanskrit, means that which is given. Functionally, it has come to mean the opposite: that which is taken. Everything we do can be now taken by other people, information seekers, so that private information agencies as well as governments know everything about us.
The question arises, but is this legal? In the United States anyway people’s rights to privacy are protected by the Constitution. What I eat, wear and consume is my business, others cannot be privy to them if I don’t want. Then why is this happening? Why is the government farming out the responsibility of collecting data about us to private companies such that local and national governments from Punjab to Peru are hiring information agencies spending trillions of dollars? Why?
The government of the United States is saying it does to protect us from harm’s way. Remember 9/11? It happened because existing laws prevented governmental agencies from breaking into the emails of Mohammad Ata, the man who was the executor in chief (pun intended) of the devastating demolition of the World Trade Center, killing more than three thousand people in a single assault. The USA would not let that happen again. It established the National Security Agency, a subdivision of the National Security Council, precisely to spy upon people like Mohammad Ata. But, unfortunately, the soynet cast is huge, and along with the likes of Mohammad Ata, people like you and me get caught in the net.
The primary instrument to collect such data is not held by the government agencies. It’s held by you! Your cell phone! As mentioned earlier, it is a carrier of information on your entire life, ever since you’ve used cell phones. It is an instrument which records data, and, upon being “pinged, ” (meaning requested), send data. Its location site can be sent to information seekers through its global positioning capability; and your thoughts, tastes, statements and activities can all be accessed by those who administer your phones, and sent to someone else, upon directive.
Those who are sufficiently naïve may think, “So what, if I don’t do anything wrong or illegal, why should I worry?” May be not now, not today, this week or this month. But if when the chips are down, someone from either a private agency, or the government want to use your information against you, then? The issue is, should government have access to such private information about you?
Here is an example of how information about you and me may be collected Typical information includes a location, date, and unique identifier information for the device, but no information identifying any individual’s association with a device. This is often described as anonymized data. However, deanonymizing the anonymized data was easy for the researchers. The location pings associated with each device revealed work and life patterns. This enabled the researchers to determine the location of a user’s site of employment, the user’s home, and other places the user frequents. Once the address of a home was located, public records for the home were accessed to provide the name of the person and often the name of his or her spouse or other persons occupying the property.
It did not take long for researchers to deanonymize the data. They were able to track federal employees in almost every major government building in Washington, D.C. This included congressional advisors, department of defense officials, and Supreme Court judicial staff. The observations also included thousands of pings inside the Pentagon, on military bases, in F.B.I. headquarters, and in Secret Service facilities across the country. The researchers were even able to track a secret service agent assigned to President Trump. By proxy, the researchers were able to track the location of the president himself, capturing movements to within a few feet of accuracy on a day when the president traveled between Mar-a-Lago and nearby golf clubs, which also included a golf outing with the prime minister of Japan!
Fine, I hear you say. Those people mentioned here are big shots, even the president. What would they do with information on a little fish like me? To the questioner, I will refer to the MacArthur era in the 1950s when hundreds of people were accused of sympathizing with communism and of activities against the interest of the United States. And those were almost fifty years before the cell phone was invented!
Governments and information agencies from the world over are thoroughly engaged in the information business. Altogether 131 countries (including The USA and India) are paying a handful of internationally operating information agencies. At the same time, here in the States, a number of legal cases are being fought against agencies and the state and federal agencies.
So what we should do? There is not much we can do. However, we could all be extremely vigilant with the use of our cell phones. Not download apps indiscriminately. Be extra cautious using financial apps, as well as social media like Facebook. Furthermore, despite the temptation we should not fall for whatever we read on the internet. Bring back our critical thinking intellectual skills. Lastly, always, always ask ourselves what are our values concerning the issues I am reading about or witnessing on YouTube.
Only then there will be some possibility of protecting ourselves from the potential tyranny of cell phones and internet.
Cell Phones and the Legal Challenge: Is the Medium, the Message?
By Shivaji Sengupta