Morris: The Now Omniscient Phone

March 25, 2019

by Leo Morris

My sense of privacy has eroded a bit every year since I got my first cellphone. I’ve become so used to the loss that it usually doesn’t even bother me. My real fear is that there will be a tipping point at which so much of my privacy is gone, I won’t care when the last of it is threatened, or perhaps even notice.

I was reminded again last weekend of how dependent I have become on my mobile connection to the rest of the world. While I was visiting my sister in Indianapolis, my car was attacked by a monster pothole – again, for the second year in a row!

While I was driving all around the city on my too-many-miles-on-it-already doughnut, desperate to get the car fixed before the Sunday drive back to Fort Wayne, the smartphone was my lifeline. I used it from the car both to call ahead to the tire places I was visiting and to keep my sister updated on my progress, and I used its mapping feature to get to the places.

Remember how much more difficult such a weekend emergency in an unfamiliar city once was? We’d have to look all those places up in the phone book, call them all before we headed out, then mark them on a map that was so creased in the wrong places it would never fold properly. And forget about keeping somebody else apprised of the situation, unless we wanted to spend half the time looking for phones (which are charmingly referred to today as “land lines”).

But the accompanying disadvantage to the convenience of the smartphone is the fact that we can never be truly alone. Everybody we know is always with us and has instant access to us.

Never mind the week away from home when nobody could reach us unless we called them first to give them the vacation number. Or even the lunch hour when the only people we had to talk to were the ones at the table with us. Our phones are now attached to us, not our physical addresses, so there is no hour of the day when we can ignore a phone call by saying – whether or not it is true – “Sorry I missed you, wasn’t home.”

Today, when people call or text or send an email to our phones, they know the message has reached us instantly. If we don’t respond immediately, they know immediately that it’s because we are purposely ignoring them. So, our guilt prevents us from preserving our solitude.

And it just isn’t our friends and family list in that phone with us. The whole world is – at least the parts of it we have sampled, and there is a record of everything.

My phone knows the music I listen to. Its Kindle app knows what I read. There is a record of what I’ve looked up on Google. My texts with friends and family – every intemperate and ill-advised word – are there, as is a record of all the calls I have made and received. So is a record of places I have been. So are my bank records. Everything I have ever ordered through Amazon.

In the pre-digital age, all that information would fill a roomful of file cabinets, and it would take days to search through it. Every scrap of it – and more – is right there is that little device I carry around all the time.

What would I do – what would you do – if the police showed up with a search warrant demanding both the phone and the passcode with which to access it?

There is a case about just that issue now before the Indiana Supreme Court that will surely make it eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case originated in Hamilton County in 2017 when a court issued a search warrant ordering Katelin Seto, being investigated for alleged stalking, intimidation and harassment, to turn over her iPhone 7. She did, but refused to give up the passcode, citing the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.

The warrant allowed police to search her phone with no limitation. That’s a big deal. In the pre-digital age, a warrant had to specify what police were searching for. Anything else, no matter how incriminating, was off limits unless it was in plain sight.

I understand the issues involved. In the digital age, it is easier to both hide evidence and go on a fishing information for evidence. Public safety and personal privacy are in conflict as never before. We might have reached a point at which current case law can’t keep up with developing technology.

And I might be closer to my tipping point than I care to think about. The first time I saw this story, I shrugged and moved on. It was more than a week before I finally decided it was something worth writing about.

And consider the 40-some million members of Gen Z, that cohort born from the mid-i990s on. That is the first generation of digital natives. They do not know a life not connected online and think nothing of putting their whole lives out there. I don’t think they even fully grasp the concept of privacy – at least the kind of privacy understood by previous generations – so how can they worry about losing something they’ve never known?

Maybe it’s not just my own tipping point I need to be thinking about.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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