Note to Reporters: If Surveillance Data Shouldn’t Exist, Then Don’t Use It
The New York Times fails in its attempt to report on the surveillance economy
This op-ed was co-authored by Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New-York based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at the NYU School of Law.
If you want to teach kids not to play with fireworks, try not to put on a fireworks show as part of the lesson. You don’t warn people that something’s dangerous by showing them just how fun it can be.
That lesson is lost on the New York Times, which last week published an opinion piece by Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson highlighting the dangers of smartphone location data by mapping the movements of rioters at the Capitol on January 6. (OneZero recommended the story in a short post on Friday.) The journalists obtained a leaked dataset of location pings and used it to map the movements of insurrectionists from a Trump rally to the halls of Congress — in one case, they identified an individual by name, publishing his social media information and other details.
They intended the story as a warning against surveillance. Warzel and Thompson write “Surrendering our privacy to the government would be foolish” and “None of this data should ever have been collected.” But they undermine their warning by putting the data on full display and using it to make a political point: Yes, the tracking is bad, but look, it also proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the insurrectionists can be linked to Trump, they seem to say. As if to emphasize the mistake, the New York Times Opinion Twitter account on Sunday promoted the article as having “identified some of the Capitol rioters,” completely missing the core point about data surveillance.
We firmly agree with Warzel and Thompson’s ultimate point that this data should not exist. We have both been longtime critics of a technology landscape that allows and even…