Kate Cox | ArsTechnica | Source URL
Activists want demonstrators to stay active—but privacy implications abound.
It's no secret that police and other law enforcement agencies have a history of using mobile phone location and other data to target or investigate individuals, and the wave of mass protests in support of black communities and against police brutality this month has provided a rich data trove for them to probe. As it turns out, cops aren't the only ones diving into the data to follow demonstrators after the streets are clear.
Political advocacy and voter-registration groups are reaping the bounty of location data tied to protests, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The groups use geofencing to contact those who were at protests—basically, reaching out to every device that was in a certain area at a certain time, without specifically identifying the individual. In this case, activists reach out with political messages.
Quentin James, founder and president of The Collective, a political action group that supports black candidates for political office, told the Journal he has been using location-based outreach to promote voter registration. "When these protests emerged, it was eye-opening for folks to understand, wow, people are gathering again," James told the WSJ. "We want to make sure we're using all available tools in our toolbox to make sure we're reaching the right people."
Jason Berlin, founder of a voter-registration group called Field Team 6, told the WSJ that such location-based tactics are "deeply spooky yet extremely helpful." Field Team 6 uses Facebook to deliver targeted advertising to users whose devices were near recent protests in Detroit, Houston, Raleigh, and Tallahassee. "We're actively looking at where the protests are popping up and then readjusting our targets," Berlin explained to the WSJ.
Plenty of other people agree with the "spooky" part, at least. The CEO of one software firm that collects location data explained that he declines requests for data on phones near protests, along with requests tied to religious institutions or elections, as being "use cases we believe could bring harm."
Law enforcement uses location data for other kinds of investigations as well. Cops need to get a warrant to track a specific individual's mobile phone. Doing it the other way around, though—picking a location, and then looking at who was there—has fewer restrictions.
Late last year, for example, federal investigators trying to solve an arson case in Wisconsin gathered location-history data from 1,500 devices that passed through the area over a nine-hour window. A similar reverse location warrant used in Florida led police mistakenly to identify a man who happened to be riding his bike near the scene of a burglary as the top suspect.
Other private entities also use geofencing tools to zero in on individuals. Ambulance-chaser law firms, for example, have advertised to people who have visited hospital emergency rooms.
While phone owners may understand that their devices collect location data for certain uses, consumers often have no idea how broadly sold and traded that information then is. That's according to Keith Chen, a behavioral economics professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who spoke to the WSJ. "To the degree that this becomes very common, I do worry that it starts to put a chill on people’s willingness to peaceably assemble," Chen told the Journal.