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We Should Be Able to Use Apps Without Fear of Government Surveillance

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This is the ultimate example of what’s broken in digital life: The locations of people who used apps to pray and hang their shelves wound up in U.S. military databases.

Vice’s Motherboard publication this week reported that data on people’s movements collected by seemingly innocuous apps passed through multiple hands before being bought by U.S. defense contractors and military agencies. It’s not clear what the military is doing with the information.

This isn’t an isolated case of government authorities buying commercially available databases containing the movements of millions of people. U.S. law enforcement agencies and the Internal Revenue Service have done this, too. After about a year, the I.R.S. determined that the data didn’t help find any targets of tax investigations, The Wall Street Journal reported recently.

This activity might be a legal end-around Americans’ constitutional protections, but that doesn’t make it right. It shows what happens when America’s vast and largely unregulated data-harvesting industries enable government surveillance with little oversight from courts or other outsiders.

One root of the problem is the insatiable land grab by nearly every company imaginable — whether it’s Facebook or weather, parking and dating apps — to siphon every digital morsel of information about us, mostly because they can.

Both The New York Times’s investigations and Opinion teams have written about the prevalence of commercially available data on where we roam in the world with our phones, collected mostly without our true knowledge or consent. The digital economy is a game of data intrusion one-upmanship, and we have little control over where our information winds up and how it’s used.

It pains me that there are few national laws restricting the collection or use of location data. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who has for years sought restrictions on data surveillance, said he was working to introduce legislation that would bar U.S. law enforcement agencies from buying data that would typically require a warrant or court order.

“The government is flagrantly ignoring our constitutional rights to track Americans’ movements and buy our personal information, as investigations by my office, Vice and The Wall Street Journal have revealed,” Wyden said in a statement. He said his planned bill would “close that loophole.”

It wouldn’t stop companies from collecting this data, but at least the data couldn’t be bought and used by government authorities without someone looking over their shoulder.

Look, some might be inclined to believe that this data doesn’t matter, or that it’s our responsibility to read apps’ privacy policies. Fine. We can be more informed and more responsible digital citizens.

But one of the lies about digital life is that we have personal control over any of this. We don’t. Even the company that made a Muslim prayer app told Motherboard that it didn’t know users’ data was being passed along to U.S. defense contractors and the military. People may believe they have nothing to hide, but I worry that being tracked all the time by companies or our government erodes our freedoms.

Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School who coined the term “surveillance capitalism,” has said many people believe losing control of our data is an inevitable consequence of our digital lives — but it’s not.

We shouldn’t accept an army of companies scooping up bits of our lives and selling it to anyone, including actual government armies. We should be able to use a shelf-straightening app without fear of winding up in a military database. We deserve better.

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Your Lead

Bless you, dear readers, for being delightful oddballs.

In an ode last week to the humble personal computer, which I compared to hammers, I basically egged you on to send me poetry about hammers. And wow, you did.

We heard from easily dozens of readers who pointed out existing poems or songs that reference hammers — “If I Had a Hammer” was a big one — or wrote their own.

Wave hello to our On Tech editor, Hanna Ingber, who picked a few faves. Some of the hammer poems were submitted by professional writers. Thank you for all of them.


The Cold Cheeseburger of Love
slumps on the hotel night stand
next to the Flat Diet Coke of Freedom
in its Paper Cup of Ennui. The Sad Clown
of Destiny hangs on the Bent Nail of Indifference
driven into the Purple Wall of Oblivion
by the Slightly-Bent Hammer of Fecklessness.
Oh, Crispy Home Fries of Homesickness,
spilled onto the floor,
scattered beneath the
unmade bed, the
unmade bed.

Matt Mason, Omaha, currently the Nebraska State Poet

Oh, how I love my hammer
it is such a lovely tool.

It may lack a lot in glamour
but as an implement it’s cool.

— Alan Payne, Etowah, Tenn.


A hammer is what a man needs,
on a November splashing heatless
sunlight to and fro by noon,

like silvery Chablis
tossed among the leaves;
I love

the dim secrecy of this cellar’s cool,
the jars of nails
and nickel screw eyes,

the hammer’s iron tooth
there, in its corkboard
rest —

wood-handled, wrapped
with gripping tape
and waiting for some solid use.

It’s everything my century applauds.

Roundheaded: riven: able;
maker of rails and shingle;

now to yank, now to rend,
now, if called upon, to kill.

William Orem, Emerson College

You implement divine
And master of the whack
For driving into pine
A nail or brad or tack

Oh, lovely, sturdy banger
Your beauty strikes me dumb
And then you miss the picture hanger
And land upon my thumb.

J.J. Gertler, Alexandria, Va.

  • Apple knows how to retreat without looking like it’s retreating: Facing regulatory investigations and lawsuits over its dealings with smartphone app developers, the company said it would cut in half the fee it collects from all but the biggest app companies, my colleague Jack Nicas reported. As Jack wrote, this is a savvy way for Apple to mute the criticism of how it treats app developers without giving up too much money.

  • Convenient home shopping, at a cost: The tech news publication Rest of World reported that Coupang, South Korea’s biggest e-commerce company, didn’t take enough precautions to control a coronavirus outbreak at one of its warehouses. Employees and others told the publication that the outbreak was a symptom of Coupang’s zeal for speed and efficiency that had for years overburdened its workers.

  • I want to slip away to Hogwarts, too: My colleague Lena Wilson wrote about people using TikTok to edit themselves into “Harry Potter” movie scenes. Some of the short videos can take many hours to make, and they allow these creators to make friends and imagine themselves at the center of the popular franchise.

I promise, you will enjoy this article about New Yorkers obsessed with spotting Barry, a barred owl that has become an avian celebrity in Central Park.

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