During a recent medical checkup, my doctor told me I’m “medically boring.”
As much as I appreciated his left-handed compliment, I couldn’t help but wonder whether people with evil intent would think the same as my doctor.
I don’t believe my medical records have been hacked, stolen or abused, but I can’t be certain. What I’m sure about is just about every other piece of my personal information is a matter of public record and beyond my control.
We know about the hacks, the dark web and the criminals who make millions trafficking our personally identifiable information, or “PII.” If you still believe your Social Security number, bank account information and other PII isn’t in the hands of global identity theft cabals, you’re almost certainly wrong. If you’re not, you never go online, don’t have a smartphone, tablet, smart watch, smart speaker or computer, and you keep your money and paper stock certificates under your bed.
Of course, it’s illegal to steal your PII. But there’s plenty of other information about you others can collect in ways that are perfectly legal — and profitable. Take location services, for example. We usually don’t pay much attention where we go. But your smartphone does. And so does your car.
It turns out there’s a $12 billion market for information about where you’ve been. According to The Markup, an online nonprofit newsroom that investigates how institutions “are using technology to change our society,” at least 47 companies gather and sell location information harvested from mobile phones — probably including yours.
Chances are you’re complicit in this activity, because every time you give an app on your phone permission to access your location, you’re adding information to data bases that apps often sell to these companies. The companies also gather information based on your online purchases — sometimes without having to pay for it.
Meanwhile, late-model vehicles (and some that are not so new) also track their owners’ every move. According to an article in The Drive, another online publication, “Most modern cars know their locations better than their owners do.”
One example of the data collection used in the auto industry is a log from a 2013 Ford F-150, which showed GPS coordinates were stored whenever a door was opened or closed. With frequency and precision, it was easy to track where the truck has been. And that was using technology that’s now nine years old.
Smartphone users can go online to find out how to control access to their data. Unless you’re a criminal or an international spy, you may not mind if strangers know where you’ve been or what you purchased. After all, even the Postal Service maintains an enormous data base of everyone’s addresses (some say USPS is the nation’s first social media platform).
But everyone should at least be aware this data can be legally manipulated and sold. And we don’t know what could happen if unscrupulous players start tracking us for less than benign or business reasons.
Unless Congress approves legislation placing some boundaries around location data collection, look for the criminal element to figure out ways they can exploit these databases for profit.
Sadly, there’s nothing boring about that.