Analog Equivalent Rights (4/21): Our children have lost the Privacy of Location

In the analog world of our parents, as an ordinary citizen and not under surveillance because of being a suspect of a crime, it was taken for granted that you could walk around a city without authorities tracking you at the footstep level. Our children don’t have this right anymore in their digital world.

Not even the dystopias of the 1950s — Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Colossus, and so on, managed to dream up the horrors of this element: the fact that every citizen is now carrying a governmental tracking device. They’re not just carrying one, they even bought it themselves. Not even Brave New World could have imagined this horror.

It started out innocently, of course. It always does. With the new “portable phones” — which, at this point, meant something like “not chained to the floor” — authorities discovered that people would still call the Emergency Services number (112, 911, et cetera) from their mobile phones, but not always be capable of giving their location themselves, something that the phone network was now capable of doing. So authorities mandated that the phone networks be technically capable of always giving a subscriber’s location, just in case they would call Emergency Services. In the United States, this was known as the E911 regulation (“Enhanced 9-1-1”).

This was in 2005. Things went bad very quickly from there. Imagine that just 12 years ago, we still had the right to roam around freely without authorities being capable of tracking our every footstep – this was no more than just over a decade ago!

Before this point, governments supplied you with services so that you would be able to know your location, as had been the tradition since the naval lighthouse, but not so that they would be able to know your location. There’s a crucial difference here. And as always, the first breach was one of providing citizen services — in this case, emergency medical services — that only the most prescient dystopians would oppose.

What’s happened since?

Entire cities are using wi-fi passive tracking to track people at the individual, realtime, and sub-footstep level in the entire city center.

Train stations and airports, which used to be safe havens of anonymity in the analog world of our parents, have signs saying they employ realtime passive wi-fi and bluetooth tracking of everybody even coming close, and are connecting their tracking to personal identifying data. Correction: they have signs about it in the best case but do it regardless.

People’s location are tracked in at least three different… not ways, but categories of ways:

Active: You carry a sensor of your location (GPS sensor, Glonass receiver, cell tower triangulator, or even visual identifier through the camera). You use the sensors to find your location, at one point in time or continuously. The government takes itself the right to read the contents of your active sensors.

Passive: You take no action, but are still transmitting your location to the government continuously through a third party. In this category, we find cell tower triangulation as well as passive wi-fi and bluetooth tracking that require no action on behalf of a user’s phone other than being on.

Hybrid: The government finds your location in occasional pings through active dragnets and ongoing technical fishing expeditions. This would not only include cellphone-related techniques, but also face recognition connected to urban CCTV networks.

Privacy of location is one of the Seven Privacies, and we can calmly say that without active countermeasures, it’s been completely lost in the transition from analog to digital. Our parents had privacy of location, especially in busy places like airports and train stations. Our children don’t have privacy of location, not in general, and particularly not in places like airports and train stations that were the safest havens of our analog parents.

How do we reinstate Privacy of Location today? It was taken for granted just 12 years ago.

Syndicated Article
This article was previously published at Private Internet Access..

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Anonymous

    Just live without a smartphone if you can, just like you can when your smartphone doesn’t work for some reason but then just stretch that period. I do it and it’s easy.

    1. Jules

      You can also be tracked if you only have an old-school mobile phone. I don’t have a smartphone, and I’ve begun leaving it at home, not always, but more and more often.

      1. Anonymous

        Yes, that’s the way: gradually get used to it (btw. I don’t own a dumbphone, in fact I already hate having a home phone, as I hate phones in general…).

  2. bf

    what about putting your phone in a bag that acts like a faraday cage, at your discretion when you travel?

    1. Jules

      If the phone is switched on, this method would (probably) drain the battery pretty quickly, because the phone will always try to connect. So you have to switch off your phone, bag or no bag. But if your phone is switched off, do you still need a Faraday bag? I read (or heard) the rumor that it’s also possible to track and even access a phone that’s switched off, which is why you would have to remove the batteries as well. (Some say: also the SIM card.) But that’s not a practical solution, aside from the fact that you can’t remove some phone models’ batteries.

      So to be really safe, but without knowing enough, I’d say switching off your phone is a must, putting the switched-off phone in a Faraday bag is a good thing, and when you need the phone, you take it out of the bag, switch it on, do what you have to do, and then off & into the bag again.

      If you need to stay reachable, you’d need an additional anonymous burner phone (or at least a burner SIM), but in some countries that’s not possible. As far as I know, here in Germany you always have to show your ID if you want a to buy such a device. (Not sure, though.)

    2. Filino Rupro

      Someone with a construtive approach! With a usefull solution and not only spreading fear and impotence.

  3. unscrambler

    Now you can use word unscrambler here.

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