No Surveillance State Month, Part 1: Turn Off Your Cell Phone

Slide to Turn OffImagine if the government were to pass a law requiring every American to carry around a GPS monitor that would at all times report your location back to the government. The government “wouldn’t be allowed” to use these records without a warrant, of course, and the government would simply keep these records on-file for 18 months, after which they would be “destroyed.”

There would be outrage, protests, lawsuits, calls for impeachment and revolution, etc. etc. etc.. The good news is that this will never happen; the bad news is that it won’t happen because the government already has this data since any American who carries a cell phone has his or her location constantly recorded by his or her cell phone company.

Your cell phone provider can (and does) estimate your location by the measuring your signal strength from nearby cell towers. The stronger the signal, the closer you are, and because multiple towers likely reach you, triangulation is possible and your location can generally be determined within about a few dozen yards.

Cell Provider Data Retention
Data Retention for Major U.S. Cell Phone Providers

Your cell phone provider constantly records this data and keeps it on file for a year or more, depending on your provider. So if you’ve attended the Communist Meetup Group, cheated on your spouse, or really enjoy strip clubs, your cell provider already knows that, and can tell you exactly when it happened.

The solution to this is both simple and mind-blowing: turn off your phone. In addition to the privacy benefits, you’ll perhaps gain the benefit of becoming re-connected with the real world. Except if you work for very specific jobs, you have no obligation to be accessible to the world 24/7/365. The world will indeed go on without you, and “emergencies” will solve themselves just as they did before the advent of cell phones.

Many phones also have an airplane mode which may or may not be helpful. (Who’s to know whether all transmissions have actually ceased? I once had a phone that would occasionally receive text messages, much to my surprise, after enabling flight mode!) Most phones (including iPhones) can be turned off by holding the power button for several seconds and following the on-screen instructions.

So, pick a time when you’re off-the-grid and every day, “disappear” for a while.

This is one of a 30-part series, “No Surveillance State Month,” where daily for the month of June I’ll be posting ways to avoid invasion of your privacy in the digital age. The intent of these posts is not to enable one to escape detection while engaging in criminal activity — there’s still the old-fashioned “send a detective to watch you” for which these posts will not help. Rather, this series will help you to opt-out of the en masse collection of data by the government and large corporations that places Americans in databases without their knowing and freely-given consent for indefinite time periods. We all have the right to privacy, and I hope you demand it.

12 thoughts on “No Surveillance State Month, Part 1: Turn Off Your Cell Phone

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  1. I would like to think that even if these records exist, I will not be inconvenienced. Of course if I walk by a 7-11 as it’s being robbed, and a few minutes later I walk by a gas station being robbed, the circumstantial evidence provided by the cellular location database could put me in a bad light. Now in this country we have an assumption of innocence, and hopefully the prosecutor must prove beyond all doubt that my moves were not coincidental.

    I have heard there is negative feedback about google glass because people don’t want to be randomly photographed by some guy walking around. There is facial recognition involved, but in contrast, the cellular id is much more easy to decode.

    I keep my cellular on in case my disabled relative falls down and I am needed. Maybe I should give her a can with a string and stay nearby instead. 🙂

  2. Turning off your phone doesn’t stop the GPS from working. Older phones don’t have it, but almost all the newer ones do. If you can yank the battery, the GPS will be disabled. If not, the only option is to wrap it in tinfoil. (And no, I don’t have a hat – yet.)

    @dwgoodall: Sign your relative up for Life Alert or something similar. My mother wears a button hanging around her neck she can push at any time to connect. She also has to check in twice a day.

    1. I’ve seen no evidence of this — link? Also, the tracking I was referring to isn’t actually done with GPS; it’s done via triangulation of cell tower signal strength. As long as your phone is not making contact with the cell towers, the tracking stops.

  3. First of all, I didn’t know about this “retention policy.” Second of all, thanks for the pragmatic advice. I do tend to turn off my cell phone when not in use to save the battery, but from now on, I’ll redouble my efforts to protect my privacy.

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