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June 8, 2011


In April, researchers discovered that the latest generation of iPhones had the capability to keep a minute-by-minute log of everywhere you go. iPhone users were understandably outraged. In a column about the issue, New York Times technology writer David Pogue suggested this was much ado about nothing. Though Apple has since provided a fix for those who prefer their phones not keep track of them in this way, and there appears to have been no nefarious intent behind this aspect of Apple’s technology, there may have been more here to concern individuals than Pogue allows.

Pogue writes: “Now, I’ve been in this job long enough to know that there’s a privacy-paranoia gene. Some people have it, some don’t.” And he does not, because, he says, he has “nothing to hide.”

But that is not really the point, is it?

Pogue maintains that, if he were to review all of our personal information, Big Brother would be “bored to tears.” But this view trivializes the potential negative effects of information about you being stored in various information silos maintained by credit-card companies, banks, phone companies, cable companies, and Facebook.

Pogue is right about one thing: these private entities are not Big Brother. They collect user and customer information for purely economic purposes, to know more about the people who buy their products and services and to sell more of those products and services.

The Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, was the government. And, under current Fourth Amendment precedent, the government today has relatively easy access to much of the information that these private entities have stored, and from that information could assemble an interesting picture of you—a picture that might accurately represent where you live and work, where you go, and who you spend time with.

Which is not to say that any agents of the federal government are, at this moment, busy compiling dossiers on each of us. It is to say, though, that the government could do that without much trouble. And when that information about you is viewed out of context, it may be that Big Brother would find it all very interesting, regardless whether you believe you have something to hide.

Lawrence Friedman

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