• United States



Contributing writer

RSA: Geolocation shows just how dead privacy is

Mar 02, 20164 mins
Data and Information SecurityRSA ConferenceSecurity

abstract background light blue
Credit: Illus_man/Shutterstock

A regular refrain within the online security community is that privacy is dead.

David Adler's talk at RSA Tuesday, titled "Where you are is who you are: Legal trends in geolocation privacy and security," was about one of the major reasons it is so, so dead.

To paraphrase Adler, founder of the Adler Law Group, it is not so much that in today's connected world there is a single, malevolent Big Brother watching you. It's that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of "little brothers" eagerly watching you so they can sell you stuff more effectively. Collectively, they add up to an increasingly omniscient big brother.

"Everything is gathering location data - apps, mobile devices and platforms that you use," he said. "Often it is being done without your knowledge or consent.

"And at same time, privacy advocates have ID'd geolocation as particularly sensitive information."

That, as numerous experts have been warning for some time now, is because data about where you are at all times of the day can paint an incredibly detailed and invasive picture about who you are - your political, food, religious, sexual and shopping preferences, medical conditions, job, family, friends and other relationships, and, of course, where you live.

And, as is also well known, people make it very easy to collect that data. They essentially give it away. "A lot has to do with the shift to mobile devices," Adler said. "What people used to do on their desktops, they now do on mobile."

He cited a Pew Research Center study on how people use their cell phones, which found that 40 percent used it for government services, 43 percent to research job information, 18 percent to submit job applications, 44 percent to look for real estate, 62 percent to research health conditions and 57 percent for online banking.

"In addition to the sensitivity of the subjects, you fold in the location data, and it can become very revealing," Adler said.

Avoiding this is not as simple as turning off the "location services" feature in a smartphone either, he noted.

"That is only one of several ways location data is gathered," he said. "I was shocked at technology behind it. It is collected by the cell tower that your device talks to. Wi-Fi hotspots not only share the location, but time stamp it. Your phone logs all of it - your keyboard cache, SIM card serial number, your number, your email address. All of this can be gathered by apps, and they don't have to ask your permission."

There is a growing awareness of these risks not just from privacy advocates, but from at least some government agencies as well. Adler quoted the Federal Trade Commission's Director of the Consumer Protection Division Jessica Rich, who said two years ago that "Geolocation information divulges intimately personal details of an individual."

He also noted the passage of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015, along with other legislation pending.

But it is unlikely that things will change soon in any major way. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) called the consumer privacy bill "an incredibly important first step," but also said it contains, "too many loopholes, and enforcement is lacking."

Adler said that is in part because the U.S. still, "has no uniform privacy laws, and enforcement is ad hoc." He said a number of consumer complaints, "have fizzled in the courts, because they depend on very specific harm to individuals."

Still, he said a number of FTC cases are setting precedents for protecting consumer privacy.

"Regulators are taking a more in-depth look at this kind of information. It is trending and important," he said.