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How Your Smartphone Can Spy on You

Motorola Mobility, LLC

Excited about the latest iteration of the iPhone, expected to be soon announced? Here’s a sneak peek into some of the buzz bubbling out of Apple HQ: “new reports suggest that the latest version (which is being referred to as the iPhone 5S) will include a fingerprint scanner.” According to leaked reports, “the fingerprint scanner is meant to unlock the phone – though it could also be used for other things, such as making mobile payments more secure.”

Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic can certainly see the appeal of a way to secure his phone that doesn’t require repeated code-punching to unlock, but then pulls back and considers:

If I store a thumbprint on my iPhone, does that mean the government would be free to seize it, sans warrant, on the theory that I forfeited any expectation of privacy when I gave it to Apple?

There is reason to think so.

He goes on to note:

The government doesn’t need a search warrant to extract location data from cell-phone users, a federal court ruled Tuesday, noting that a cellular subscriber, “like a telephone user, understands that his cellphone must send a signal to a nearby cell tower in order to wirelessly connect his call.” …

Its judges noted that the Fourth Amendment confers not a general right to privacy, but protects citizens against certain kinds of government intrusion. But isn’t government intruding into my affairs profoundly regardless of whether it monitors my movements directly or tracks them via a third party?

In the ongoing revelations about NSA spy powers, Julian Sanchez reads between Sen. Ron Wyden’s lines to piece together that there is very likely a bulk cell-location tracking program ongoing. It has already been reported that the government possesses the capacity to track phones even when they are turned off.

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI “can remotely activate the microphones in phones running Google’s Android software to record conversations, one former U.S. official said,” albeit under strict court supervision.

What might make such practices easier? An Android phone that already has an always-on microphone and a separate processor dedicated to natural-language processing for voice recognition. Conveniently, that is one of the stand-out features of the newly announced Motorola Moto X (above), the first high-end phone to be produced since Google bought the cell phone giant.

The Moto X will draw on much of the same groundwork that powers the (in)famous Google Glass to always be listening for your commands to further reduce the inherent friction of smartphone use. (Fred Armisen brilliantly parodied just how “natural” such commands could be on SNL this spring.)

This comes on the heels of Microsoft announcing its grand plan for a new media center/game console that would place a video camera and microphone in front of millions of living rooms across America, always connected to the internet, and always on, listening and watching for commands.

As the tech industry continues its traditional “revolutionary” pace to bringing new features and interfaces to our lives, they are starting to find consumers much more concerned about potential breaches of privacy than they would have in the past. Possibilities that would have been shrugged off before are now being seized upon, and sometimes forcing companies to backpedal from parts of those always-on requirements altogether.

As Megan Garber puts it, “our laws and our social norms need to do a better job of keeping up with our racing-forward technologies.” If Edward Snowden has done nothing else, he has made American consumers vigilant of their privacy, just before it could have been too late.


about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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