When it comes to privacy, let’s not confuse alarmism with vigilance
An arrangement (link in Spanish) between Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) and the country’s three leading mobile phone operators has sparked concern that the government is now spying on people.
The reality is that phone companies have been selling the mobility data of their subscribers in aggregate form for many years: a few years ago Barcelona City Hall asked the Spanish company Bestiario_ to used the phone data of more than 300,000 smartphone users to monitor commuting patterns in order to optimize transport routes, without raising any concerns about privacy. In fact when there were less than twenty devices being used in a given cell, no data was provided to avoid the remote possibility of a user being identified.
While growing numbers of us are rightly concerned about privacy, using phone data in this way is widespread and poses no risk. What’s more, such practices are more common among private companies than governments. Spain’s INE has always acted within the law, and provides an excellent statistical service.
All the INE is doing is obtaining data on population movement in a more reliable and complete way than through surveys. There have been calls for such activity to be banned. What would this serve? Does anybody really suspect the INE of spying on the population?
There have been reports that the INE now has the GPS of hundreds of thousands of people and will be monitoring their movements: this is not true, and even if it were, many people give their GPS location to any number of apps with far less reliable practices than the INE. Instead, the INE will collect information using phones’ aerial registration.
In short, in a democracy like Spain’s the government doesn’t spy on us. If the authorities want to do that, they must get permission from a court. Asking operators for information about their subscribers’ movements and receiving fully aggregated information that prevents identification of individuals does not constitute state surveillance, it simply tells the government that a certain number of people travel between A and B during certain times, not whether they are having an affair or plotting to overthrow the state. The data is aggregated by phone towers, not by addresses or specific streets, and are available to any private company that wants to buy it, without any threat to our privacy. So let’s forget the conspiracy theories.
Greater awareness of privacy is no bad thing. If more people had shown it earlier, it would have helped us to identify the many things we do in our daily lives that allow third parties to obtain infinite personal data. But suggesting that in a democracy the state is spying on us is entirely mistaken and alarmist. When it comes to privacy, we need to be vigilant, but we also need to know where to look.
(En español, aquí)