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Data privacy on quicksand

By Jean-Claude Elias - Nov 14,2019 - Last updated at Nov 14,2019

How much privacy you really get with technology is an on-going debate that is probably going to be there forever. It is also a very serious matter.

Who can really read your emails and monitor your WhatsApp messages without you knowing it? Can your smartphone actually be geo-localised (i.e. physically tracked) if it is completely turned off? Are the authorities legally allowed to search it without a formal warrant from a judge? Do you trust your mobile service provider when it comes to ensuring your privacy? To what extend is your computer protected from prying eyes once it is on the network? 

Trying to get a clear and definite answer to the above is tantamount to walking on quicksand — you just pray for your safety and wish you get lucky one way or another!

The truth is that privacy as it was understood before global networking and smartphones, roughly around the year 2000, is now a thing of the past — and for good.

Smartphones physical tracking is one such example. Whereas “… smartphone can be tracked even if GPS, location services are turned off” (techrepublic.com), it is still unclear if tracking is still possible once you turn off the device. In principle it is not, but some specialists think that your mobile service provider, nevertheless, can do it behind your back, as long as there is some battery power left. If this is true, then older models with easily removable battery used to ensure better privacy. Now most new models feature non user-removable batteries.

WhatsApp announced last year that all messages on its network would be encrypted from end to end, automatically and systematically, meaning that the network guarantees you get 100 per cent privacy and that no one at all would be able to read your messages sent this way. Remembering that WhatsApp belongs to Facebook owners and that the latter had to publicly announce an ”adjustment” of its privacy rules a few months ago, one has the right to remain cautious about any privacy declaration.

Following a massive number of controversial searches of travellers’ smartphones at North American border points last year, US court finally ruled that “Border agents can’t search your phone without good reason”. (Associated Press, May 10, 2018). How many countries would apply and actually enforce such rule?

No one can search your house without a court warrant, it is understood. But today your smartphone holds an incredible amount of information about you, your business, your bank accounts, your life, your family and your friends. This has more value than any other object inside your house. Once you leave it to go out, carrying the phone on you as we all do, this precious collection of information is not “your house” anymore, in the physical sense of the term. Who then has the right to search it, how, where, and to what extent?

Constrained privacy because of global networking and mobile telephony works the other way too, when it help tracking and catching criminals of all kinds.

In France, a famous criminal case involving suspect Nordahl Lelandais is still not completely solved. However, geotracking the smartphone of the man has helped the police get many of the answers pertaining to the case, though some remained unanswered to date.

Geotracking is also helping parents monitor the whereabouts of their children who are at an age still too young to be completely independent, but old enough to carry and use a smartphone, typically those who are between 11 and 17. This perhaps is a case of “positive lack of privacy”.

As with other aspects of high-tech, all we have to do is try to adapt, for better or for worse.

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