Our phones know everything

There's a very interesting article in the New York Times that shows just how much information can be gleaned from phones. The article unfolds against the backdrop of political battles in the Catholic church.

Catholic Officials on Edge After Reports of Priests Using Grindr

I'm not Catholic or religious. I don't care one bit about whether priests are having sex with adults. That's between them, their church, and their god. The whole celibacy thing seems ridiculous, but Catholics aren't interested in my opinions.

What I am interested in is the privacy angle. I'm not obsessed with it. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being me going off-grid at an undisclosed location (as long as Dick Cheney isn't there), I'm a 6 or 7. I find it interesting, intriguing, and troubling (it's not keeping me awake at night...not a chance of it eclipsing climate change on the Sleep Wrecker Scale).

According to the article, a couple of conservative Catholic bloggers somehow got hold of cell phone data (likely publicly available) that allowed them, or whoever provided the data to them, to identify priests in the Vatican and Newark who were using Grindr and possibly other dating apps.

I need to read the article again, but I think the digital snoops relied primarily on location data. If you've got the time, resources, and data, you can often figure out who someone is, even if the data is anonymized. I remember a fascinating experiment the New York Times did years ago about using publicly available anonymized data to identify people traveling in or near Bryant Park. Hmm, my memory might be off. Doesn't matter. This is a good starting point if want to look those up - Farhad Manjoo's The Apps on my Phone are Stalking Me.

If you're interested in this stuff, I recommend reading the article about the digital sleuths obsessing over the sex lives of adults. I thought the article did a good job of discussing the snooping and the likelihood that the conservative Catholic bloggers will use the info to push a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. I'm curious about the level of accuracy in the claims. Did burner phones make it more difficult? Probably not.

If I were a billionaire I'd be tempted to put someone on the trail of the bloggers. But that'd just be lining the pockets of these spooky data companies.

I say we should make these companies shoot 3 pointers. Review which apps you've authorized to use your location information.