Most Americans Object to Government Tracking of Their Activities Through Cellphones

Quarter of poll respondents say they will change behavior to avoid surveillance

By Byron Tau | The Wall Street Journal

A new survey found widespread concern among Americans about government tracking of their whereabouts through their digital devices, with an overwhelming majority saying that a warrant should be required to obtain such data.

A new Harris Poll survey indicated that 55% of American adults are worried that government agencies are tracking them through location data generated from their cellphones and other digital devices. The poll also found that 77% of Americans believe the government should get a warrant to buy the kind of detailed location information that is frequently purchased and sold on the commercial market by data brokers.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that several U.S. law-enforcement agencies are buying geolocation data from brokers for criminal-law enforcement and border-security purposes without any court oversight.

Federal agencies have concluded that they don’t require a warrant because the location data is available for purchase on the open market. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that a warrant is required to compel cellphone carriers to turn over location data to law enforcement, but it hasn’t addressed whether consumers have any expectation of privacy or due process in data generated from apps rather than carriers.

Modern mobile-phone applications like weather forecasts, maps, games and social networks often ask consumers permission to record the phone’s location. That data is then packaged and resold by brokers. Computers, tablets, cars, wearable fitness tech and many other internet-enabled devices also have the potential to generate location information that is collected by companies.

The buying and selling of the location data drawn from modern technology have become a multibillion-dollar business—frequently used by corporations for targeted advertising, personalized marketing and behavioral profiling. Wall Street firms, real-estate developers and many other corporations use such information to guide decisions on investments, developments and planning.

Law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. military have also begun buying from the same pool of data for espionage, intelligence, criminal-law enforcement and border security. The Journal reported earlier this year that several agencies of the Department of Homeland Security were buying the mobile-phone location data on Americans through a specialized broker.

The survey by Harris, an American market research and global consulting firm, found that some Americans said they would take steps to avoid such tracking. Forty percent of respondents said they would block such tracking on their phones with software, while 26% said they would change their habits and routines to be less predictable. Another 23% said they would leave their phone at home more, while 32% said they wouldn’t do anything different.

The survey also inquired about views toward location privacy in general. A majority of respondents disagreed with the statement, “The only people concerned about keeping their location data private are people who have something to hide.” The poll found 60% of Americans somewhat or strongly disagreed with that statement, while 39% strongly or somewhat agreed.

Older Americans were less concerned about government surveillance than younger Americans. Of those surveyed between 18 and 34, 65% said they were worried about government location tracking. For respondents 65 and older, only 39% were concerned.

Nonwhite Americans were more likely to be concerned than white Americans about location data surveillance by government agencies. The poll found 65% of Black respondents, 65% of Hispanic respondents and 54% of Asian Americans surveyed said they were somewhat or very concerned, compared with 51% of white respondents.

The poll, which Harris conducted online between Nov. 19 and Nov. 21, surveyed 2,000 American adults. Harris doesn’t provide a margin of error because of its online methodology and weighting. A poll of that sample size typically carries a margin of error of about plus or minus 3%.

Read the full story at The Wall Street Journal