Many people talk a good game about Internet privacy but don’t try very hard to protect their data. The US Supreme Court may have just changed that.
Now that the high court has overthrown the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that asserted a constitutional right to an abortion, each US state can enact its own abortion law. Many of them intend to impose strict limitations on abortion, including criminal sanctions. They could investigate possible violations by obtaining personal data stored online or on a person’s phone or computers. Law enforcement agents might use Google’s huge store of location data to track the movements of women seeking abortions or scour people’s online search history to see if they’re looking up information on the subject.
Whatever one’s position on abortion, the prospect has a “1984″-ish feel that concentrates the mind on just how casually we’ve outsourced the intimate details of our lives to machines.
Liberal lawmakers are scrambling to the barricades, calling for stricter federal privacy regulation, but in a sharply divided Congress, nobody can count on that.
But you don’t need new legislation to begin taking control of your sensitive data.
Start with all the location data our devices collect. If you’ve got a phone running Google’s Android software, or if you run Google on an Apple iPhone, the company records every move you make if a feature called Location History is switched on. You can review the data yourself, to see what you were up to last New Year’s Eve, for instance. But others could obtain this information as well.
Google lets you switch off the Location History feature, delete your stored Location History entirely, or just edit out certain parts of it. Just open a browser, go to myactivity.google.com, and log into your account to take command. On an Android phone, go to the “settings” menu and the “location” sub-menu to make adjustments. On an iPhone, go to the settings for your Google Maps app.
In addition, Google recently announced that it will no longer store the location histories of visits to certain sensitive locations, including abortion clinics, fertility clinics, domestic violence shelters, and addiction treatment services.
Many smartphone apps also request location data. Some need it to do their jobs — ride-sharing apps, for instance. While hardly any app needs to track you all the time, some do just that, then resell the information to data brokers who’ll sell it to the highest bidder.
Then there are advertising IDs. These are unique codes found on every smartphone and used by advertisers to track your movements and use the data to send you highly personalized ads. But the same data can be obtained by police or even purchased by journalists or political activists.
It’s already happened. Last year, a priest who worked at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was forced to resign after a publication said it had obtained smartphone location data proving that the priest frequented gay bars.
Both Apple and Android phones let you protect yourself. In the “settings” menu, you can check whether your apps collect location data. If an app is tracking you at all times, you can tell it to stop. Also, when installing new apps that want location data, you’ll get a notification that lets you set limits. For instance, you can let an app see where you are, but only when you’re actually using it. (You set each app with the location permissions you want it to have; you can do this at installation or afterward.)
Also, the newest version of Android lets you shut off the advertising ID system, while on iPhones, apps that want to use it must ask your permission first. Just say no. You’ll still get ads but they’ll be less personalized and more generic.
And don’t stop with your location data. Think of all the times you ran online searches for sensitive or controversial topics. Major search services like Google and Bing retain these searches, and so do your computer and smartphone. These days, the police routinely check these locations for evidence.
But you can order search engines like Google and Bing to delete your search history. With Google, for instance, log in at myactivity.google.com to dispose of your old searches. Also, consider using DuckDuckGo, the privacy-centric search service that doesn’t record your search history at all.
You can also delete the search history from your computer or smartphone. And you can run sensitive searches using the browser’s private or incognito mode. That way, the information you access will be deleted when you close the browser, along with any record of what you were doing. It’s also a good idea to block tracking cookies that are attached to your browser to monitor the sites you visit. The Firefox browser blocks such cookies by default, but you can install software in other browsers that’ll do the job, like Ghostery.
Consider using an entirely separate browser for all sensitive communications, to avoid confusion. One possible option: the privacy-centric Tor browser. It can be significantly slower than standard browsers like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. But that’s because it routes all information requests through a network of proxies, to conceal the user’s real IP address, making it far harder for anybody to trace your online activities. Or you could stick to a traditional browser and subscribe to a virtual private network, or VPN, which will encrypt all your Internet traffic and conceal your IP address as well.
It sounds like a lot of work, but only because we too rarely pay attention to the fate of our personal data. The death of Roe is a stark reminder that data privacy is a choice.