Analysis & Comment

Opinion | They Stormed the Capitol. Their Apps Tracked Them.

Times Opinion was able to identify individuals from a trove of leaked smartphone location data.

Illustration by Yoshi Sodeoka, photograph by Kenny Holston for The New York TimesCredit…

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By Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson

Mr. Warzel and Mr. Thompson are writers in Opinion. They previously reported on smartphone tracking for the series “One Nation, Tracked.”

In 2019, a source came to us with a digital file containing the precise locations of more than 12 million individual smartphones for several months in 2016 and 2017. The data is supposed to be anonymous, but it isn’t. We found celebrities, Pentagon officials and average Americans.

It became clear that this data — collected by smartphone apps and then fed into a dizzyingly complex digital advertising ecosystem — was a liability to national security, to free assembly and to citizens living mundane lives. It provided an intimate record of people whether they were visiting drug treatment centers, strip clubs, casinos, abortion clinics or places of worship.

Surrendering our privacy to the government would be foolish enough. But what is more insidious is the Faustian bargain made with the marketing industry, which turns every location ping into currency as it is bought and sold in the marketplace of surveillance advertising.

Now, one year later, we’re in a very similar position. But it’s far worse.

A source has provided another data set, this time following the smartphones of thousands of Trump supporters, rioters and passers-by in Washington, D.C., on January 6, as Donald Trump’s political rally turned into a violent insurrection. At least five people died because of the riot at the Capitol. Key to bringing the mob to justice has been the event’s digital detritus: location data, geotagged photos, facial recognition, surveillance cameras and crowdsourcing.

This timelapse animation shows smartphones as they moved from Trump’s rally to the Capitol building.

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