On Data Harvesting: Be Extremely Afraid

Source: Google Bans Location Data Firm Funded by Former Saudi Intelligence Head

A prime example of how easily compromising information may be obtained from SafeGraph is this preprint from Northwestern University and Boston University in which the authors used data from SafeGraph to follow people who attended the Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle rally from the rally to their respective home towns and measured whether these rally attendees ended up increasing covid-19 incidence in their home towns. In other words, they attempted to measure the degree to which Sturgis was a national super spreader event, not just a local one. The authors acknowledge SafeGraph for providing the data gratis, and cleverly sidestep the shocking revelation that such data is available for purchase to anyone. Though the data provided to the investigators was anonymous, it is highly likely that SafeGraph can identify every single person in the data set. What SafeGraph knows about the general populace is disturbing.

More disturbing is the revelation that SafeGraph is partly owned and controlled by Saudi interests because it places a digital surveillance apparatus with global reach under the control of a regime that has used such surveillance to intimidate or to kill political dissidents. Though it’s comforting that Google has decided to halt the stream of data it provides to SafeGraph, it is, nevertheless, this outcome must be perceived as a clarion call for action, not an occasion to breathe a sigh of relief. The revelation that even Google–an entity that exists to exploit its users’ data–finds SafeGraph’s business disquieting serves as ample warning that data collection and dissemination need to be regulated. Google’s action against SafeGraph is definitive proof that the dystopian society of total government surveillance is within reach through the overt and willing collusion between government and industry. In Western democracies, the government side of this collusion can be influenced, but willingness among the populace is waning because the cacophony of disinformation blasted by “social media” has drowned out reason. Failure in bringing democratic governments to restrain reprobate companies like NSO Group will empower governments to surveil everyone and to eliminate those who oppose autocratic regimes. This failure invites total chaos. This is, unfortunately, a precipice we may have already crossed.

SafeGraph sells smartphone location data to essentially anyone. Google banned the company in June.

Vice Motherboard

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