This week, a top official in the Roman Catholic Church’s American hierarchy resigned after a news site said that it had data from his cellphone that appeared to show the administrator using the L.G.B.T.Q. dating app Grindr and regularly going to gay bars. Journalists had access to data on the movements and digital trails of his mobile phone for parts of three years and were able to retrace where he went.
I know that people will have complex feelings about this matter. Some of you may believe that it’s acceptable to use any means necessary to determine when a public figure is breaking his promises, including when it’s a priest who may have broken his vow of celibacy. To me, though, this isn’t about one man. This is about a structural failure that allows real-time data on Americans’ movements to exist in the first place and to be used without our knowledge or true consent. This case shows the tangible consequences of practices by America’s vast and largely unregulated data-harvesting industries. The reality in the United States is that there are few legal or other restrictions to prevent companies from compiling the precise locations of where we roam and selling that information to anyone.
This data is in the hands of companies that we deal with daily, like Facebook and Google, and also with information-for-hire middlemen that we never directly interact with. This data is often packaged in bulk and is anonymous in theory, but it can often be traced back to individuals, as the tale of the Catholic official shows…
Losing control of our data was not inevitable. It was a choice — or rather a failure over years by individuals, governments and corporations to think through the consequences of the digital age.
We can now choose a different path.
“Data brokers are the problem,” writes the EFF, arguing that the incident “shows once again how easy it is for anyone to take advantage of data brokers’ stores to cause real harm.”
This is not the first time Grindr has been in the spotlight for sharing user information with third-party data brokers… But Grindr is just one of countless apps engaging in this exact kind of data sharing. The real problem is the many data brokers and ad tech companies that amass and sell this sensitive data without anything resembling real users’ consent.
Apps and data brokers claim they are only sharing so-called “anonymized” data. But that’s simply not possible. Data brokers sell rich profiles with more than enough information to link sensitive data to real people, even if the brokers don’t include a legal name. In particular, there’s no such thing as “anonymous” location data. Data points like one’s home or workplace are identifiers themselves, and a malicious observer can connect movements to these and other destinations. Another piece of the puzzle is the ad ID, another so-called “anonymous” label that identifies a device. Apps share ad IDs with third parties, and an entire industry of “identity resolution” companies can readily link ad IDs to real people at scale.
All of this underlines just how harmful a collection of mundane-seeming data points can become in the wrong hands… That’s why the U.S. needs comprehensive data privacy regulation more than ever. This kind of abuse is not inevitable, and it must not become the norm.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.