I gave up — and I’ve been coding since I was a tween, have a degree in computer programming, worked in the software industry, and have been reading and writing about privacy and technology all my adult life. My impression is that friends with similar professional profiles have also given up.
Using burner phones – which you use and throw away – sounds cool, but is difficult in practice. Matt Blaze, a leading expert in digital security and encryption, said that to maintain a fire phone “had to use almost everything I know about communications systems and security,” and he was still unsure whether he was supervising. and had completely evaded identification.
What about leaving your phone behind? Let me just say, good luck.
Even if you don’t have a digital device with you and only use cash, commercially available biometric databases can perform facial recognition on a large scale. Clearview AI says it has more than 10 billion images of people from social media and news articles that it sells to law enforcement and private entities. Given the ubiquity of cameras, it will soon be difficult to walk anywhere without being recognized algorithmically. Even a mask is not a barrier. Algorithms can also recognize people by other attributes. In China, police have used “walk recognition” — using artificial intelligence to identify people by the way they walk and by body features other than their faces.
Protections you think you have may not be as broad as you think. The confidentiality that the federal health privacy law affords to conversations with a doctor doesn’t always apply to prescriptions. In 2020, Consumer Reports revealed that GoodRX, a popular drug discount and coupon service, sold information to Facebook, Google and other data marketing companies about what drugs people were looking for or buying. GoodRX said it would stop, but there is no law against them, or any pharmacy for that matter, from doing so.
That data becomes even more powerful when it’s put together. A woman who eats sushi regularly and suddenly stops or stops taking Pepto-Bismol, or starts taking vitamin B6, can easily be identified as following pregnancy guidelines. If that woman doesn’t like it, she may be questioned by the police, who may think she had an abortion. (Already, in some places, women seeking medical attention after miscarriage have reported questions about this.)
I haven’t even collected all the data collected on billions of people by giant technology platforms like Facebook and Google. “Well, don’t use them,” you might say. Again, good luck.
When Kashmir Hill — now a reporter at DailyExpertNews — tried to ban Google from her online life in 2019, she found it everywhere. Apps like Lyft and Uber, which relied on Google maps, and Spotify, which relied on Google Cloud, wouldn’t work. The Times loaded very slowly (trying to load for Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google Ads and a Doubleclick, then waiting for them to fail before continuing). By the end of a week, her devices had attempted to communicate with Google’s servers more than 100,000 times. Hill tried this for other big five tech companies as well, finding them equally hard to avoid.