June 22, 2011 6:25 PM   Subscribe

My Google/AT&T smartphone is recording my voiceprint biometrics, my GPS location at all times, and my every email, text message and cameraphone picture. How can I stop it?

I feel violated. I've had a Gmail account since the beginning of Gmail because I was an early (2001) Blogger user. But this smartphone stuff has got me more worried that I've ever been. Whenever I use the voice-recognition feature, it surely sends my voice data to computer servers where it is stored there forever. There was probably some legal fine-print that I clicked through, because it was seventeen pages long, which gives them the legal right to save my voice recordings forever. Ditto for my GPS location, which is probably recorded and uploaded several times per second as long as the phone is on. They probably also have acquired the "right" to store my emails and text messages on their servers for the rest of forever, as well as every cameraphone picture that I send through AT&T. Could it be any worse? If so, I'm sure I'll find out shortly. My question here, I guess, is: Is there any way to set this thing to MAXIMUM PRIVACY 100 PERCENT ON -- NO, YOU DO NOT HAVE MY PERMISSION TO KEEP AND STORE THIS DATA ANYWHERE.
posted by shipbreaker to Technology (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Install K-9 and use a non-Google IMAP mail server.
In settings, disable the option to personalize voice search (aka record your voice).
posted by zippy at 6:34 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: Perhaps my question should instead be, What is the smartphone of choice for privacy "nuts" like me? Us crazy, insane, paranoid loco-maniacs, who do not like their privacy to be continuously violated by default via standardized built-in Orwellian monitoring and tracking devices? Certainly not an Android phone...
posted by shipbreaker at 6:50 PM on June 22, 2011

Don't use something connected to the network if you're that concerned about privacy. Get a PDA like the iPod Touch. I believe there are android-based PDAs as well. Also, if you're worried about location information, don't use a cell phone.

It's hard for me to believe that you're complaining about Google storing your email though.
posted by demiurge at 6:57 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I am pleased to report that a Google search for "In settings, disable the option to personalize voice search" pulls up this very Metafilter post as the number one result. Pyrrhic victory indeed!
posted by shipbreaker at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2011

I second using a different email provider. Your email provider will of course have access to your emails, but there's no reason to give that data to the same people who have everything else about you.

Texts are stored by your cell provider. Nothing you can do about that, and it's not smartphone specific.

Voice search will always send your voice to a server -- your phone isn't powerful enough to do voice recognition. They probably do store it, to improve their algorithms if nothing else.

Android provides no option to turn off sending your GPS coordinates to the server, other than just turning off GPS completely. There's actually a fairly sternly worded warning to this effect when you first log in. They do this in a more limited form in some of the Google products for iOS as well.

Camera photos aren't sent anywhere unless you specifically upload them.

Privacy nuts mostly don't use smartphones. A WiFi-only tablet provides almost all the same functionality, but you don't carry it in your pocket so it has a lot less opportunity to gather data about you.
posted by miyabo at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: Also, if you're worried about location information, don't use a cell phone

I guess what it boils down to is: do humans have the right to location privacy while using cell phones? And, the answer is No, humans, you don't.
posted by shipbreaker at 7:00 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: Cellphone text messages are stored on servers by the cell phone providers. Is there a law of any sort that forces the company to flush the data away and delete it after, say, three years, or five? Probably not.
posted by shipbreaker at 7:03 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: Also, I've been using GOOGLE VOICE to do transcriptions ever since it was called Grand Central, and they must be deliberately messing with our heads --- there's no way they can be doing such a poor job of transcription after having two or three years of practice! It must be intentional. Dragon Dictate had this stuff locked down to an accurate science way back in 1999.
posted by shipbreaker at 7:07 PM on June 22, 2011

right to location privacy

Well, there are three groups that you want location privacy from: the government, corporations, and individuals. In terms of privacy from individuals while using cell phones, that's fairly easy, just don't give the details of your location to a site that posts it for your friends to see. For privacy from the government, police can get a court order to track your location based on your cell phone. You can work to change the laws in this regard, but it doesn't really matter which cell phone you have, they can track you. It's similar with the corporations: cell phone companies have the right to record your location data according to federal law. There is a bill changing those laws that is making it's way through congress, so you can keep that in mind.
posted by demiurge at 7:13 PM on June 22, 2011

Do you want actual advice here or do you want to start a debate on privacy? Because only one is what AskMe is for.
posted by MadamM at 7:22 PM on June 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Mod note: bunch of comments removed - OP dial it back and stick to one question please, this is not a forum for a privacy debate.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:24 PM on June 22, 2011

I guess what it boils down to is: do humans have the right to location privacy while using cell phones? And, the answer is No, humans, you don't.
Unfortunately, telling the computer to direct a phone call to someone at an unknown, untraceable location didn't really work out. (Also, my envelope addressed to "John Smith" with no street address was lost in the mail. Damn those postal bastards.)

You can turn your phone off which will prevent it being used as a location device. (If you're extra paranoid, pull the battery every time you turn it off.) When you do turn it on make sure both GPS and network connections (WiFi or cell data) are disabled. This will make the location less precise and also prevent data from being sent.

Another alternative is to buy a pre-paid cellphone using cash (small, unmarked bills). The phone company will still know the location of this phone, but it'll be harder for them to figure out who's using it. (Tip: Don't call home with it, that one's a dead giveaway.)
posted by anaelith at 7:51 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also: it's only a matter of time until smartphone back doors become a serious problem. All you need is a few seconds of physical access to someone's phone to install an app that will let you listen to your victim through the microphone (even when not on a call), track their movements, and even take candid pics through the camera.
posted by miyabo at 8:09 PM on June 22, 2011

Personally, phones with "hidden features" like this will probably only get more intrusive as carriers try to find alternate profit centers selling our data. Open source hardware and software on phones would make our lives much more private. Now if we can only find a well heeled inventor who would do this. :)
posted by ivorybishop at 8:32 PM on June 22, 2011

do humans have the right to location privacy while using cell phones?

That's like asking if humans have a right to not use wheels when they're using cars THEY BOUGHT WITH THEIR OWN MONEY.

You can't get one without the other, and not for Big Brother conspiratorial flat-earth reasons, but actual real scientific reasons. Cell phones use geo-location to determine which cell phone tower is the closest. They have to do this because:
  1. there's a limit to how many cell towers are near you…
    • because they are expensive, and the last thing a cell phone company wants to do is spend its hard-earned (ha!) cash
    • because NIMBY citizens hate cell towers but love their five bars and their 4G
    • because Majestic 12 and the Trilateral Commission and a secret handshake or something

  2. the closer the tower, the less the phone has to amplify the signal, which means…
    • longer battery life (all the consumer really cares about)
    • less brain cancer
    • microwave ovens can finally operate in peace

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:45 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes the cell phone company has to know which tower your near. But Google doesn't have to know your exact GPS coordinates, even when you're not making a call or using Maps. Google does this to improve their maps and provide realtime traffic data, not to improve your individual service.
posted by miyabo at 8:53 PM on June 22, 2011

You can take your SIM card out of your cell phone too. The results will be about the same.
posted by demiurge at 9:18 PM on June 22, 2011

It can bug your eyes out when you first figure it all out but I find one of the best ways to deal with this increasingly common, almost by default, behaviour by technology companies in any form of communication activity by electronic equipment is to simply behave as though its there. There are many ways listed in teh comments and a judicial combination of all can often be bettr than total blackout because the reverse will also provide contrasting behaviour in the pattern recognition algorithms of the search function.
posted by infini at 3:20 AM on June 23, 2011

Best answer: So, let's get this all straight:

On using most of the Android phone features, you are offered a chance to read the PRIVACY POLICY before you click on Accept, or Cancel.

If you don't want your GPS location tracked, you can leave that feature off.

If you do turn the GPS feature on, you can expect their servers to gather all of the data on wherever you go and wherever you have ever gone, and never throw it away. This is standard practice. And even if you leave it off, each call uses celltower triangulation to track your location anyway.

If you use the Voice Recognition stuff, you can expect your voice to be uploaded to their servers, your voice biometrics analyzed, and for that data to never be thrown away.

If you send a text message to someone, it will be stored on their servers forever.

If you send a cellphone picture to someone, a copy will stay on their servers forever.

People are going out of their way and spending much money on hundred-dollar phones for the opportunity to do all this.

And if you are a "privacy nut" who thinks it is wrong for all this data-collection to be taking place, you should simply not buy nor use a smartphone.

=== === ===

"I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!" Actually, I feel like it is everyone else in the world who is taking crazy pills.

And I fully expect jessamyn to delete this comment as she deleted the others, some sort of censorship / spite thing going on. Big Sister.

AskMetafilter is as useful as you make it.
posted by shipbreaker at 9:53 PM on June 24, 2011

And I fully expect jessamyn to delete this comment as she deleted the others, some sort of censorship / spite thing going on. Big Sister.

Feel free to take this complaint to MetaTalk which is the proper place for it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:33 AM on June 25, 2011

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