When Privacy Has Gone Too Far: A Lost iPhone and Pandemic Implications

I found a phone. That in itself is not too unusual, millions of phones are lost every year. What is unusual is due to privacy, the difficulty I am having in trying to return it to its owner. Privacy has its pluses and minus and is a growing topic amidst the analytics revolution. How much data is too much to share and when have our privacy concerns failed practical uses for people?

Personally, I have not lost a phone, but I had a few just die. I know the pain of having to start over with a new phone – recapturing your contacts and hopefully your photos from the cloud. It is possible but not painless, so I was motivated to find the owner and return this phone.

Why is this so Difficult?

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The phone was fairly new and had enough of a charge to let me know it was locked and the carrier was AT&T. Ah-ha! I thought this would easy. With the AT&T SIM card they could learn the phone number, and then the account of the owner. All they would have to do would be email them, or call another member of their phone plan and that would be that. Not so fast… they had the phone number but, due to privacy, were not able to look up the account without a PIN. Sorry, but they couldn’t help. Maybe Apple?

I contacted the local Apple Store who sent me around in circles first to the lost phone claims department. Really, I think they were surprised. “You are returning a phone?”, They proudly said unless the owner contacted them, they could not reach out to the owner. Perhaps drop it off with the authorities, they suggested.

I went to the local county Sheriff’s office. I got the feeling they deal more with people who take phones than bring them back. They weren’t certain of how to proceed and there was some discussion of jurisdiction. The phone was found a few hundred yards within the city limits. Besides, they couldn’t unlock it, so where would the owner go to look for it? Talk to the City police lost and found. 

“It seems no one really could help me because there wasn’t much anyone could do as a result of privacy.”

Privacy Sounds Like a Good Idea

Having all this privacy and protection sounds like a good idea on the surface, but maybe it is not very practical. What if the people who need to find their phone can not because of the privacy protocol needed to log in to their account through some other method? I mean don’t we all just use our phone to prove who we are? (goodness that is a whole other topic too!).

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But really, this seemed like a phone that did not want to be found. I started thinking (perhaps irrationally) why is there no way to find the owner? What if something happened to them? Why after so many days, did they not call the phone? I kept it dutifully charged and waited patiently for it to ring. Why did no one else call the phone? Were there not friends and family needing to check-in? If it belongs to a business, would the boss not at least call on Monday morning? Occasionally, a morning alarm would buzz, but nothing, just nothing. No text messages. No notices from Facebook or Instagram. What did this mean? And if someone was in need of being found, in addition to their phone, is there any hope in this extremely privacy-driven world that they would?

…if someone was in need of being found, in addition to their phone, is there any hope in this extremely privacy-driven world that they would?

Serious Privacy

We take privacy seriously. Apple has made it part of their brand, suggesting not even the FBI could ‘crack’ their phones. Enter too many wrong unlock code attempts and ‘poof’ the phone does everything short of a Mission Impossible message burn reset, without the Peter Graves voiceover (“this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds…”).

Apple’s recent Ad series “Privacy. That’s iPhone” play on the idea that more privacy is better. However, there are times when releasing some of our concerns about privacy can be to our benefit. Shop on Amazon or use Alexa? If so, you are already sharing information with Amazon, and arguably this is helpful when you are shopping online. Looking to social distance and watch a movie on Netflix? They keep track of your movie history and suggest titles you will like – they even give you a match percentage to let you know it is a good fit for you. They claim 75% of their views are driven by their algorithm. Otherwise, it would take forever to search through 1000’s of movies to find the right one. Who has time for that? Cue the popcorn!

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Fighting Pandemic, Fighting Privacy

COVID-19 and contact tracing is the most current example of our hesitancy to share data. Tracers attempt to contact individuals who have been in close proximity of infected individuals. The low-tech method of self-reporting (and remembering who you were with, when) is yielding poor results. In Maryland, 25% of people called do no answer the phone from tracers. Others are reluctant to share names of friends and family. As the New York Times reported“there is little appetite in the United States for intrusive technology… obligatory phone GPS signals, that has worked well for contact tracing in parts of Asia”. When it comes to data on our phone, we hold it near and dear to our heart. Attempts to deploy COVID-alert-apps have also been slow and are only deployed in a handful of regions. Face it, you are more likely to get an alert for a flood warning than an encounter with COVID-19.

...you are more likely to get an alert for a flood warning than an encounter with COVID

For many, I am sure it feels like their whole identity is encased in their digital device. Almost like an avatar of themselves. To let anyone in, to peek along the data edges may be uncomfortable, too revealing, too intrusive. In contrast, to not share a little may mean in the digital world, like its real-world counterpart, you are a bit lost and when you fall out on the side of the road there is no way anyone can bring you home. The balance of privacy and its benefits is a worthy discussion and it continues.

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