Privacy & Security

The Surveillance Beacon in Your Pocket

Here at Nestmann, we regularly bemoan the erosion of our “right to privacy.”

The root of the problem is a legal concept called the “expectation of privacy.”

Back in 1967, when the only electronic communication device to which most Americans had access was a fixed location landline phone, the Supreme Court defined the expectation of privacy as a two-part test.

  • Whether a person “exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy.”

  • Whether “the expectation [was] one that society is prepared to recognize as ‘reasonable.’”

Based on those tests, the court ruled that before convicting a man named Charles Katz of illegally transmitting wagering information by wire (in this case, from a phone booth), prosecutors should have obtained a search warrant.

At the time, the decision was widely praised by civil liberties advocates as protecting the privacy of phone calls.

But this legal definition underpinning it was a moving target because the expectation of privacy that society is prepared to accept as “reasonable” inevitably evolves.

Thus, over the decades since Katz was decided, the Supreme Court has ruled that police, without a warrant, can:

Fast forward to the present time, when virtually every American today carries an electronic communications device with them everywhere they go – their smartphone.

And far from using the device as a means to protect our privacy, we instead use it to post photos and videos on social media, alert loved ones to our whereabouts, and follow online maps to our desired destination.

Thus, we were hardly surprised when we learned in 2020 that courts were approving a new type of search – one in which law enforcement demands access to location data from every mobile device connected to a cellphone network or to the internet in a particular area in a specific time range.

It’s called a “geofence” warrant. Essentially, it’s a warrant in reverse, with hundreds or even thousands of innocent people thrown into a surveillance dragnet.

It turns out that the prosecutions for seditious conspiracy and other offenses brought by Uncle Sam against some of the individuals involved in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US capitol relied heavily on geofence warrants.

Court documents show that Google released records to federal prosecutors identifying 5,723 mobile devices in a four-acre area in and around the Capitol while the breach was occurring. Even devices in airplane mode or not connected to the cellular network were identified.

The government also requested and received data from Google of anyone who deleted location history within a week of the attack, resulting in the identification of another 37 devices.

And while we can’t be certain, we suspect that even individuals who turned off their mobile devices while inside the four-acre search zone might be singled out.

Geofence warrants wouldn’t be possible without another innovation we’ve written about – surveillance capitalism. And Google is the undisputed king of it.

Google records location data for hundreds of millions of smartphones in a proprietary database it calls Sensorvault. A data point is created each time there is an “event” on your smartphone. That could be a phone call, a text message, a Facebook posting, a map search, etc. But Sensorvault also records location data through apps running on your smartphone, even if you’re not using it.

Naturally, Google is anxious to monetize this data. And it turns out that a variety of companies would love to know, for instance, if you periodically pass by their bricks-and-mortar store.

They might invest in targeted ad campaigns so that a pop-up message in a social media app invites you to come inside in exchange for some benefit. The benefit could be anything from a free cup of coffee to a 20% savings on an appliance purchase.

And it turns out that selling advertising, much of it based on your location data, is a wildly profitable business for Google. In 2022, Google’s parent company Alphabet recorded $54.5 billion in ad revenues.

What’s more, while we advised readers to say “goodbye to Google” nearly five years ago, it’s easier said than done. That’s because Google Search is the leader in internet searches, Google Maps is the most popular mapping app, Gmail is the biggest email service, and YouTube is the top short video provider.

And if you avoid using Google’s popular (but privacy invasive) apps? Well, Google is still watching you. It turns out that nearly three out of four websites use the tracking tool Google Analytics. And when you visit a website that uses it, Google will gobble up your browsing history. There’s also Google Site Tag which tracks ads served through Google’s own advertising program. Not to mention many other Google trackers designed to create targeted ad campaigns. All this tracking, of course, happens without your awareness, much less your permission.

The enormous profits that companies like Google which are engaged in surveillance capitalism can generate means that it’s not going away. Sure, a few states are considering piecemeal solutions such as banning geofence warrants, but the only real solution would be for Congress to enact comprehensive legislation giving people more control over their data.

Until then, the courts will continue to issue decisions commensurate with our evolving expectation of privacy.

And that leads us to a few snippets of free advice.

  • First, leave your smartphone behind if you’re going to any type of protest. Or bring a burner phone with you instead.

  • Second, uninstall any apps on your smartphone you really don’t need.

  • Third, keep your smartphone in airplane mode and only use it on Wi-Fi networks. This will stop the phone from searching for cell service or connecting to cellphone networks.

  • Fourth, use a virtual private network (VPN) to prevent your internet service provider from seeing what websites you’re visiting. Google and other surveillance capitalists can still track your browsing activities if you use a VPN, but they’ll have a much more difficult time identifying you. The VPN we use here at Nestmann is ExpressVPN. There are others worth considering, but we’ve made the decision to deploy ExpressVPN company wide.

As with everything else privacy-related, the surveillance capitalists and Big Brother have a vested interest in keeping tabs on you. Not only is it profitable but an up-to-date and easily retrievable ledger makes it simple to monitor you if you ever step out of line.

That means no one will protect your privacy for you – you need to do it on your own. Now would be a good time to start.

On another note, many clients first get to know us by accessing some of our well-researched courses and reports on important topics that affect you.

Like How to Go Offshore in 2024, for example. It tells the story of John and Kathy, a couple we helped from the heartland of America. You’ll learn how we helped them go offshore and protect their nestegg from ambulance chasers, government fiat and the decline of the US Dollar… and access a whole new world of opportunities not available in the US. Simply click the button below to register for this free program.

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We have 40+ years experience helping Americans move, live and invest internationally…

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We have 40+ years experience helping Americans move, live and invest internationally…

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