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Big Brother is back, and this time he’s in your phone and Facebook account

How safe are your cell phone texts and calls?
How safe are your cell phone texts and calls?
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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Facebook has undergone yet another facelift, but what may not be as obvious as the layout changes are changes to much of the popular social networking site’s privacy settings. Now you may be sharing even more information about your “likes” and various other browsing without really wanting to. What’s more, there have been allegations that the site was tracking users’ moves even after they logged off.

You might be saying to yourself, “Well, that’s Facebook. At least I have my handy dandy, safe, private cell phone, right?” Wrong. A Department of Justice document recently obtained by the North Carolina ACLU under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveals that cell phone companies are holding onto some pretty personal information — who you text, what you text and where you were when you used your phone.

David Sarno, technology reporter for the Los Angeles Times told KPCC’s Patt Morrison on Monday that unbeknownst to some, cellular phones have the basic function of tracking a customer’s current location so calls can be sent to the right device.

“It’s kind of an invisible tradeoff, because a lot of people are not aware of the level to which data about their behavior and actions is being collected,” he said.

He explained that companies want this information so they can effectively enhance their products and sell them to consumers.

“What we have today is, first of all, a lot more like 1,000 little brothers, lots of different companies taking little slivers of your daily activity. And unlike Big Brother, they don’t want you to be scared, because they don’t want you to be noticing or be worried about the idea that a lot of your ideas are being stored,” he said.

The changes have prompted organizations including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, ACLU, Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog to send a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging an investigation for privacy infringement. Patt spoke with Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about his involvement in pressing congress to rethink outdated laws.

“The primary law that protects your electronic privacy (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act) was signed into law 25 years ago,” he said, adding that this was “back when practically no one had ever heard of email and mobile phones were clunky electronic novelties.”

Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at USC, said that people should not expect any personal information stored online to remain private. Defending Facebook, North said the company maintains that the data they collect merely creates an algorithm that helps them to differentiate different types of people and offer services and advertisements accordingly.

“They claim that it’s not direct one-to-one, ‘We know everything about you,’ but ‘We know what people like you like,’” she said.

North said she doesn’t think Facebook has ill-intentions. Instead, the company’s data collection protocol is “good business in a lot of ways,” she said.

North offered two ways for those uncomfortable with Facebook’s information collection practices to avoid detection: Users can use a separate browser for all Facebook activity, or regularly delete cookies, which relay information from a user’s browser to the website it originated from.

Still, Bankston warns against regarding information as a personal possession.

“I don’t own the fact that I live at a particular address. Other people have the right to say, ‘Hey that’s Kevin and he lives over there,’” he said, referring to the First Amendment. “The bigger question is, ‘When can other people force your providers to hand over data?'"


Law enforcement officials say the information retention is crucial for them to properly do their jobs, but the revelation has consumer advocate groups in an uproar. So are your “private” conversations and internet activities ever really private? And if the answer is no, will that ever change?


David Sarno, technology reporter, Los Angeles Times

Karen North, director, Annenberg Program on Online Communities at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an online privacy advocacy group