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What the Parking App Won’t Tell You

Wed, 05/19/2021 - 18:49

Editorial

The only explanation is that they did not understand. This week, East Hampton Village and the Village of Sag Harbor both implemented a pay-for-parking system that required users to download a smartphone app. This seems a lot to ask of both residents and visitors alike. And it raises significant concerns about unwelcome electronic snooping.

Underscoring the clear danger, ParkMobile, the system both villages adopted, had 21 million United States users’ information exposed in a March data breach. The hackers got license plate numbers and email addresses, and in many cases, phone numbers and mailing addresses, and possibly dates of birth. Even encrypted passwords were stolen, though the company said that the specific encryption keys needed to access them were not. The ParkMobile data were put on sale online, according to a security expert monitoring Russian-language dark-web forums.

In this connected age, the notion of privacy seems quaint. People readily share personal details via social media, and most do not mind so-called targeted online ads that some algorithm figures they might respond to. But where we go still feels like a private matter. Not apparently to the respective village officials, who have blithely agreed to share step-by-step records of our movements.

ParkMobile is not alone among smartphone apps interested in where you go and how long you spend there; intrusive data collection is part of the business plan for some of the world’s most-valued companies. To avoid having your information swept up in this global net, you generally have to “opt out,” not the easiest thing to accomplish, especially for older users, those who did not grow up with smartphones and the like.

The scale and implications of data collection are enormous. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading advocate for online privacy and free speech, warns that these companies continue to build extensive individual profiles that may or may not be accurate and might be discriminatory, yet can still figure in life-altering decisions about them. This invisible web takes notes on our every move, from where we go to what we like to eat. And it knows our politics, education level, income, and shopping preferences. It even keeps track of our physical and mental health — essentially 24 hours a day and without our knowledge, let alone consent. We may even notice but not think much of it — different members of the same household will see different advertisements and more, depending on who the systems think they are. Sometimes this comes out amusingly off-base, but more of the time, the trackers are highly accurate.

Track-profile-target is the name of the game. It is not just business that wants your data. Law enforcement, too, is eager to know where you go and what you do, for example, secretly harvesting license plate information outside Islamic mosques. Such records can be easily cross-referenced with parking app information, and the companies say they reserve the right to comply with such requests.

So what does ParkMobile know about us? According to its privacy policy, a lot. In addition to the email addresses and other data grabbed in the hack announced in March, it collects credit card numbers and the date, time, and location that its service is used. It also records internet and other network activity and what brand and model device is used. Data may not stay within ParkMobile’s servers, either. It can send users email and messages from outside advertisers and reserves the right to share personal information with regulators, government entities, and police inquiries. In addition, it saves data indefinitely, and would hand it over to another company in the event of a merger or sale. And, what’s more, ParkMobile shares what it knows with the municipalities and businesses that put it in place — everything, not just where a vehicle is parked. Pay attention to that last point; it is unlikely that the public wants local officials to know that much. The company makes no guarantee of the security of the information. Thank you, but no.


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