So you have just bought the latest and greatest smartphone to come out and are looking forward to downloading some of your favorite apps, logging into your email, calibrating your fitness app of choice for your big run tomorrow, and making sure your bank’s mobile app is ready to go for your big weekend getaway next month.
You set-up the iris recognition and fingerprint scanner for an expedited login experience, input your address into your favorite navigation app and make sure your favorite bill-pay app is ready to go so you do not miss any upcoming due dates.
Just like that, your new smartphone is ready to go! Isn’t technology incredible? But wait, let’s backtrack and recount all the information you just put into that little device:
- Iris and Fingerprint
- Location Services
- Social Security Number
- Upcoming Bills
- Credit Cards
…and probably much more!
In the simple span of 30 minutes, you have just put every bit of important information pertaining to you in one singular device. With this information in the wrong hands, the possibilities are devastating and endless. It is worth noting that the level of encryption most devices have these days is pretty impressive and companies like Apple have made it clear they have no intentions of lessening or weakening their product. However, as digital products develop, so are those who prey on the digital space for illegal activities.
According to the Pew Research Center, 77% of adults in America have a smartphone in 2018. That’s more than double the 35% measure that Pew recorded only a few years earlier in 2011. The potential risk is not limited only to your phone, however. In addition to the smartphone craze, Pew reports that as of this year, 53% of American adults own a tablet and 73% of adults in the US own a desktop or laptop computer; these devices are used by Americans in almost all the same ways as a phone is. Furthermore, research from Javelin Strategy suggests that since 2012, the number of fraud victims in the U.S. has grown from 12.6 million to a total of 16.7 million people. But there must be some law or legal precedent protecting you from this, right? Well, kind of.
One of the biggest legal ideas regarding your privacy and security in the digital space is what is called Third-Party Doctrine. Third-Party Doctrine, which has guided many privacy cases over the last 50 years, states that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he/she voluntarily gives to third parties.”
There are two cases that were instrumental in the development and institution of this idea. The first was in 1976; U.S. v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435. It was in this case that the United States Supreme Court said: “This court has held repeatedly that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party.”
The Miller case was then followed by another landmark case; Smith v. Maryland, 443 U.S. 735. It was this case that originated one of the most commonly used phrases in the privacy debate; “A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily gives to third parties.” In both the Smith and Miller cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government.
For years, not much was said about Third-Party Doctrine. In an age where citizens controlled all of their own information by paper, checkbooks, and the postal service, there were not many intermediaries storing sensitive data on the average American.
However, as the digital age has continued to blossom, Third-Party Doctrine has once again surfaced as a prominent talking point and now has a much more divided following. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the third-party doctrine is “ill-suited to the digital age.” Many cases of not only the government invading a citizen’s privacy but also other companies are becoming quite commonplace in today’s judicial system as well. Some of the most recent cases that have had major implications are:
- U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012)
- Riley v. California, 573 U.S. (2014)
- Carpenter v. U.S., 585 U.S. (2018)
Jones, Riley, and Carpenter addressed the seizing of GPS, cell phone records, and CSLI (cell site location information), respectively.
So all of these court cases are cool and all, but what does it mean for your Instagram habits or that new e-commerce business you are planning to run through your tablet? Apple and Google, the two most popular operating systems for cellular phones, have privacy policies in place before allowing apps to operate in their OS. However, it is unclear how much the two companies actually police every app using their OS.
So what is it that we can actually do to protect our own privacy while we tweet, shop, and browse?
1. Read Privacy Policies
If we were all honest with each other, there is a good chance none of us actually read these. However, it is incredibly important to know what is possible when it comes to sharing your data. Everything from services to apps to even the operating system can track your movements, document your interests, and so much more. This does not mean that they always do, but knowing what is possible with each entity helps you stay informed.
2. Manage Permissions
This is another easy step to take. If you have suspicions about certain apps sharing or tracking your information, simply finding your phone’s privacy settings and managing them from there is the best way to address your concerns.
You can find steps to do this for both IOS (Apple) and Android (Google) here.
3. Remove Apps You Are Not Comfortable With
This may seem extreme, but when it comes to protecting your privacy, you may think this is well worth it. There are plenty of competitor apps out there to accomplish what your previous favorite app was doing. Don’t be afraid to switch things up!
As lawmakers, lawyers, and Judges debate and opine over the extent of our privacy in the digital age, the implications of decisions made some 40 years ago are unclear. In fact, it is likely that the topic will become even more convoluted as the world’s digital capabilities continue to bloom and take humanity to heights previously unimagined.
As fun as all of that may sound, those who take their privacy seriously should be keeping tabs on what is being asked of them through the apps, services, and operating systems they use with their devices. Privacy in the digital age is still an ongoing project and it is continuously becoming a hot topic in the conversations of those who write the laws of America. Although there are no easy solutions in today’s moment, the importance of maintaining your privacy is essential.
Now go enjoy that new smartphone!