Going dark, for metadata!

Since Sunday my phone has been turned off. Not off entirely, but in aeroplane mode with wifi enabled. This lets me use it as a remote control, an ebook reader and general purpose Internet browser, but prevents it from snitching on me to the government’s new metadata collection regime.

The metadata laws were passed recently thanks to a the Labor party folding so completely you’d think they were a pair of socks. The law requires ISPs and others to retain “meta”data tracking every Australian’s phone or online activity, from websites visited (proponents would argue with this, but it’s trivially easy to deduce) down to your actual physical whereabouts.

I’ve been thinking about how the metadata laws affect me, and realised my phone is by far the most leaky device in my life. While siphoning up all our web and Internet activity for indexing and analysis is a fairly intrusive practice for a government to embark on in general, the sheer volume of metadata your average smartphone produces is astounding. Under this scheme it amounts to a 24/7 tracking beacon in your pocket.

And the scariest thing: this isn’t hyperbole.

I’m sufficiently icked out by the thought of my every coming and going being shared secretly without my consent to a swathe of government agencies without any kind of oversight — like say, a warrant — that I’ve decided to become one of those tinfoil hat people and start actively taking measures to reduce how much of my personal life gets caught up in the mass surveillance dragnet. This essentially boils down to turning off my phone when I’m not using it.

The uncomfortable realisation you’re using a shitphone

The experiment started on Sunday in a fit of existential despair. Having read John Herrman’s amusing account of purchasing a Shitphone, I realised that I too have a terrible phone which I’m generally indifferent to and avoid using where possible. The realisation that I don’t use my phone for much outside turning on my TV crossed with the government’s resolve to deduce my every bowel movement clinched it for me; I’m going offline.

I flicked the little “aeroplane mode” symbol on the Sunday and it took until Tuesday before I turned it back on.

On the Monday I woke up, read my email (on wifi) in bed, then rode to work. At no point during the ten minute ride did I feel the need to turn on cell connectivity; I’ve stopped using ride tracking apps like Strava because I rarely go far enough to warrant the effort and there doesn’t seem to be much point to it.

At work I was once again surrounded by the warm hug of ample wi-fi, so there was no need for a cell connection.

During the Monday meeting at the local coffee shop I had the pressing need to tweet, having found a particularly egregious example of a spring water company trying badly to break into the whole “social media” thing. I tried to post a photo to Twitter, but I was offline so it got stuck. I dialled up some LTE but it ultimately didn’t send and I didn’t try again. I don’t know how social media will cope with the loss.

The Tuesday I was off work and went to the gym, where I once again connected to the cell towers to download my workout history, without which I would be completely at a loss as to what I should be doing. I also browsed tweets halfheartedly and used the timer function on my phone to time sets, though I “went” harder than usual so I didn’t have that much time to faff around on the Internet. Perhaps there’s something to strive for.

Having arrived home I connected one more time to send a text message to a friend. He’s also privacy-conscious in that he uses a candybar phone and doesn’t have data enabled, so we usually use text message to communicate which makes this a little difficult. We’re a good pair in hindsight, completely isolated in our own self-imposed filter bubbles.