Kay: There’s a Bug Out There

Like Elizabeth, who posted yesterday about things to do while you’re at home, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are “sheltering in place,” so we’re not leaving the house except to go to the grocery store, doctor’s office, or a job that’s described as “essential.” As grim as this might sound, it’s not that much different than my regular life, since I’m a writer and a natural homebody. And when I talk to friends and family around the country, our situation doesn’t sound that much different than what they’re doing. So we’re really all in the same boat, at least those of us who are serious about not spreading the corona virus.

I have a regular coffee date with my across-the-street neighbor, who has a serious underlying health condition. Today she cancelled our get-together and all future get-togethers until the crisis is over, but she suggested we chat by Webex.

I have Zoom on my computer, but I’m unenthusiastic about this form of communication, so I don’t really want to download yet another chat app. And she’s unenthusiastic about Zoom, which she says has insufficient privacy settings.

I would love to think that we could still have some privacy in this digital age, but I believe those days are a thing of the past. And it made me think about the digital exposure we might be looking at as we isolate ourselves during this epidemic. Will we be cheek by jowl in the digital realm, even as we separate ourselves physically?

There were a couple of interesting (I want to say “fun,” but really can’t) stories today about Tech Gone Wrong. The first is the story of a guy who was arrested for arson because of a family-tracking app he’d installed on his phone. The app shows users where family members are at all times for 30 days. Our suspect had this app installed on his phone, but he didn’t know his son had also installed it to keep track of his dad. The police had the suspect’s car in the vicinity from surveillance video, but they used the app on the son’s phone to obtain “precision location coordinate information, movement activity, driver behavior monitoring and tracking, and specific times the cellphone was moving and stationary” to put the suspect at the scene at the time the fire started.

And here’s another one (suitable for a romance plot! Comes with a happy ending!): a woman meets a guy on a dating app. She thinks she’s picking him up for a date, but he was really looking for a getaway driver in a bank robbery. She didn’t think twice about it when he asked her to pull over so he could make a quick stop at the bank—but then he ran out and asked her to drive away fast. The chase didn’t last long, and the woman was initially charged as an accessory, but the charges were dropped after the cops saw her dating app activity. The robber is currently serving five years for the crime.

And, as we probably knew, the police in America are regularly turning to tech companies to get data on users that could aid their investigations despite privacy implications. According to Forbes, a Californian tech firm, for example, provides “a large number” of medical records to police. These companies reserve the right to share user data, meaning they sell it to third parties who use personal data to profile your activities. (California, residents can now legally demand that companies not sell their data, thanks to the new California Consumer Privacy Act.)

So you might not have the privacy you expect, even if you’re just sitting at home in front of your fireplace, as many of us are these days. If it’s not the virus, it’s bugs of other kinds. Stay safe out there, people!




3 thoughts on “Kay: There’s a Bug Out There

  1. Hmm. The first thing I thought when I saw the WebEx/Zoom conundrum was , “can’t they just call each other on the phone?”

    As for digital privacy, I’m thinking that went out the window a while back, though it still makes sense to take precautions. I liked the story of the criminal being caught through his digital mistakes. I must tuck that example away for the next time I write a criminal who needs to be caught.

      • The only thing that makes me want to try Zoom is the conferencing capability. Talking with all my family in the US at the same time would be really cool. Or throwing a digital cocktail party for my friends here!

        (-: But I do think I’d need to stage a dummy (or get a “dressing in progress” screen, kind of like “we’re experiencing technical difficulties”) to put up. I’m still in my jammies, and my hair looks like Mad Madam Mim at 4:30 p.m. (Tomorrow, I will dress in day clothes. This I vow.)

        Kay, I love these ideas. The tech we’ve got is going to make a lot of old-fashioned twists look really stupid (“Why didn’t she just call the cops on her phone?”), but it’ll bring new ways to reveal criminals — from the cellphone tracking programs you mentioned to DNA tests by people who want to see what their ancestry is.

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