Help, my transport app is stalking me
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
The apps that guide you around public transport know far too much about your daily business. Don’t sacrifice your privacy for practicality.
As I walk out of my university, my phone buzzes. Citymapper has come to life, to inform me that I will be home in 24 minutes by bike. I never told the transport app where I finish classes nor that I usually cycle home. I feel a little disconcerted – it’s like I have an over-possessive boyfriend living in my pocket and demanding to know why I am late.
Like any love story, it began with unbridled passion. I fell in love with Citymapper’s lean physique, his swish green design, and the fact that I no longer had to make any of my own decisions. Which may not be what I look for in a man, but is definitely a pleasant side effect of technology. Citymapper aggregates information about public transport, and tells you how long it will take to get from A to B by shared bike, bus, car or metro. It’s an incredibly practical format that saves me endless struggles over colorful spiderweb metro and bus maps.
But the app also gathers information about me – my GPS position, my search history, the transport I take, when and where, and makes suggestions based on my habits. Gradually it becomes not just annoying, but downright sinister. I feel like I have entered an Orwellian world where the screen in my pocket is connected to all the screens in the world, telling faceless powerful people where I am at all times. I can no longer get off the grid. It’s like without noticing it, we landed in 1984, a world of normalized surveillance and silent intrusion.
We didn’t see it coming, because it all happened when we ticked that “agree” box on apps’ terms and conditions without reading them. In the cramped lines of small print, Citymapper, like many other apps, had told us they could collect information about our location, movement and transport use, as well as transport preferences and personal data. And, “without you having to do anything”, they also collect information about the searches you make, the type of phone and operating system you use. Imagine going to the information booth at the bus station to ask how to reach your destination, and them demanding to know your entire personal history before giving you a response.
I’m not that interesting, most people don’t care where I am or where I’m going. Does it matter that I’m giving all this information ? Ratul Sen, a lawyer at UCOL, has no doubts that it does. “On a fundamental level, the fact that these apps are gathering more information than you would willing give them is a breach of privacy. For now, people don’t mind because the companies only use the information to analyse consumer behavior… but when they decide to give it to a third party, it’s risky.’
Citymapper has the right to give this information to third parties in order to “improve the app” or to “lawful authorities when required to do so by law or where appropriate.” Conditions that are sufficiently vague to turn them into a blank cheque, the app can give the data to everyone from Facebook to the NSA. “Big companies and the State can now access a whole lot of data about us from various apps,” Sen explains. “We no longer have a realm of privacy.”
Privacy is something that matters a lot to American citizens, according to Pew Research Center’s most recent data. 74% of them say it is very important to be in control of who can get information about them. Yet, in the future, privacy is likely to become a luxury good. A further Pew study entitled Future of Privacy showed that most technology experts predict that in the coming years few individuals will have the resources or the energy to protect themselves from “dataveillance”.
Will we sacrifice our privacy just for the practicality of our smartphones ? I’m not ready to let go of my rapidly diminishing privacy. So I decided to uninstall Citymapper from my smartphone. NSA, if ever you’re looking for me, I’ll be lost somewhere in Paris’ mind-boggling transport system.