Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.
We all know this is happening, yet there’s very little we can do about it – save for living far away in the woods, disconnected from everything. There’s cameras everywhere, anything with any sort of wireless connection – from smartphone to dumbphone – is tracked at the carrier level, and even our lightbulbs are ‘smart’ these days.
Yet, despite knowing this is happening, it’s still eye-opening to see it in such detail as discovered by The New York Times.