Keeping track of myself

Our smart phones can track our every movement, and this has become a controversial issue among people with privacy concerns. On one hand, this can be very beneficial; for example, it can act as the perfect alibi to prove where you were at a particular time. It’s also good to have if your phone goes missing. For me, as a service electrician, I can verify where I’ve been and how long I’ve been there. However, people have legitimate concerns about giving big companies that information about us; for example, what if it places you at the scene of a crime during the time it occurred, yet you had nothing to do with it? While it’s good for me to see how many times I’ve visited the LCBO in order to make better decisions and choices about my health, a company that would sell that information for marketing purposes would ensure that this government corporation could better target their marketing campaign to encourage me to consume more of their addictive poison. I’m writing this today to tell you that it’s not an either-or decision. You can enjoy the benefits of tracking the location of your phone without giving it to a big marketing company. You can do it yourself, and it’s really not as hard as you might think.

Screenshot of Owntracks showing my location, an open source Android and iOS app

First of all, I’m going to briefly go over how GPS works. We have been culturally conditioned through television and radio to believe that advertisements are the only way to get good things for free; however, when it comes to GPS tracking, big marketing companies are using something that we have already paid for at little to no expense to them for great opportunities to sell valuable targeted advertising. The heart of GPS technology is a network of 30 geosynchronous satellites each transmitting a unique signal; wherever you are in the world, at least 4 satellites are visible, and by timing the transmission of these four signals, a GPS receiver can determine, with a great degree of accuracy, its location. This is the most expensive component of this technology, and it has already been paid for by working class taxpayers of the United States of America. If you are a taxpayer in the United States of America, you and your fellow Americans paid for this network, it belongs to you. If you’re outside of the United States, this signal is a gift by the people of the United States to the world to make the world a better place. The other component of GPS locating technology is a combination of the hardware and firmware in your smart phone, and, if you’re like me and buy your phones unlocked, you have paid for this already; there’s no need to believe you should have to pay any more. The rest is software, which is provided by the open source community.

A screenshot of PhoneTrack, filtering my captured data.

Software needs to run on at least two places for this to work; you need software on your phone to collect and send the data, and you need software on a computer somewhere to receive and store this information. For this, I use Owntracks, an open source application for iOS and Android. On my server, I’m running a plugin called PhoneTrack which works on NextCloud, which is running on Apache2 on Ubuntu Server. All of these are open source, and some large marketing companies use some of these programs themselves, but they are easy enough to install and run on my small obsolete desktop computer. There is plenty of documentation online that provides step-by-step direction, so it’s a simple matter of following directions. Anyone could do it.

With NextCloud, I already have the ability to back up pictures and settings on my phone; this plug-in provides me with the ability to take ownership of yet another beneficial smartphone feature. Ultimately, it’s not an either-or decision; we really can enjoy all the benefits of technology without giving up our privacy, as long as we’re willing to take ownership of what rightfully belongs to us with the power of open source software.

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