The Senate Wades into Cell Phone Privacy This Week. Will They Come Out Alive?

Damn! Who the hell is in my pocket? This morning's New York Times tells me Senate hearings will convene Thursday on the issue of cell phone privacy. I convened yesterday.

My wife was complaining about banner ads appearing on the display of her flip-phone. The thing is: She has to stop and kill the banner ads each time before she can use the phone again, so it interrupts her several times a day. Talk about pushy.

Midday Sunday I find the offending app. It's called "Daily Scoop." It blats out unwanted advertising pitches all day long to get you to buy crap online. Hey, I'm gonna kill that dude right now. I find its menu. I click on an option that says "remove." Yeah! What can I tell you? I am a handy man.

Yesterday evening she says it's back. She's still getting banner ads on her phone. I kill it again. She says it's back again. So I go online and look it up. Verizon tells me that Daily Scoop is a "pre-installed app" that I am not allowed to remove.

What? It's an advertising app that I am not allowed to remove from my own phone? Yes. Verizon tells me I have to keep it on my phone. In other words, the "remove" option in its menu is a placebo for dummies like me. I just assume I'm deleting it because Verizon tells me I'm deleting it. Only when I go online and ask more pointed questions does Verizon concede that the "remove" option is kind of a joke. On me. So how handy am I again?

She doesn't have to buy the stuff that Daily Scoop pitches. But what kind of GPS and other personal information is Daily Scoop scarfing up from her phone and selling to somebody else? I can find nothing on the phone and nothing online to tell me.

Wait a minute. My wife refuses to carry a smartphone. I do carry a smartphone, because, you know ... I'm smart. That's how you know somebody's smart. They have a smartphone.

So it occurs to me to go into the settings on my own smartphone and look at the GPS option. I remember they have an option in there about whether or not you want your movements tracked by GPS. I don't remember what I checked in the options boxes. So, let's see here. My phone says ... uh ... wait a minute. What in the hell is all this stuff?

"VZW location services: By selecting 'VZW Location Services' you are enabling Verizon Wireless and third party authenticated and validated location services to access certain location information available through this device and/or the network."

What do they mean, authenticated? Validated by whom? What third parties? Oh, wait. There's more.

"Standalone GPS services: By selecting 'Standalone GPS Services' you are enabling access to all location information by any third party ..."

But just when I'm standing alone, right? Wait. Here's another one.

"Google Location Services: "Allow Google's location service to collect anonymous location data. Collection will occur even when no applications are running!"

It's their exclamation point, not mine. Like on a "High Voltage!" sign. Not reassuring. But it's all anonymous, right? But then I go back online and find a Huffington Post story from last year about some other Senate hearings where some guy described as an "independent privacy researcher" told a Senate committee, "It's really difficult to call this stuff anonymous. Making those claims is not really sincere."

Oh. Apparently that Senate committee didn't accomplish squat, either, even though it had Al Franken on it. And what's this? California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a state bill that would have provided some cell phone privacy. Oh, I am so disoriented!

Well, hell with that. I'm gonna take this into my own hands. I could hire a law firm to read all these GPS disclaimers on my cell phone for me and tell me what they mean. Or I could just go online and find some kind of jammer app to foil anybody who wants to use my own phone to spy on me.

Oh, my gosh! Here's a story in The Economist telling me it's illegal to jam GPS because it might hurt airplanes or something. But I keep surfing, nosing around for something. Here on Ebay, next to a picture of a Barbie doll, I find a GPS jammer that plugs into your cigarette lighter. Forty-nine bucks.

But what if it's a sting? Maybe it sends out a signal: "Calling all cars, calling all cars: old dude in Toyota pickup in Dallas, Texas, trying to illegally jam GPS signals. Any black helicopters in area, swoop down now, transport individual directly to Guantanamo."

Hey, wait. Now, look. This is really interesting. Here's an app that I might be able to Trojan Horse into Dallas City Attorney Tom Perkins' phone so I could track his movements. When you put it like that, that's not invasion of privacy: That's journalism. Of course I would never do that.

Yeah, well, it's not really funny, is it? The Times story today says the courts are all over the map on whether or not anything at all in your phone, from text messages to emails, can be considered private.

So what am I worried about? Am I a criminal? No. Not that I know of. Do I have a secret life? Yeah, right. I'm worn out just trying to have regular life. So why do I care?

Why do I care if commercial interests can push into my wife's flip phone and blat ad messages at her whether she likes it or not? Well, you know. She's my wife. Can I not ... does that not ... is there no ... what are we, anyway? Chopped liver?

Turns out there's a compromise. I am not allowed to remove Daily Scoop from her phone, but I can apply for permission not to allow Daily Scoop to run banner ads across the display. I do that. I check that box. Verizon tells me they will have a decision on my request "within 24 hours."

I think they'll call her first. Maybe they'll offer a compromise. If she agrees to buy one item per day and allow Daily Scoop to sell half her text messages to the Russian mafia, they will agree to reduce the banner ads by one third.

We'll probably take that deal. We are American citizens. We know our damn rights. Don't tread on me! Too much. Please?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze