“Phones have become a necessary part of modern life,” Kevin Bankston told the New York Times. “You have to hand over your personal privacy to be part of the 21st century.” Bankston is a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a privacy expert.
So just how intrusive are our cellphones? Just how much information about us are they tracking? This is a question that Malte Spitz, the German Green party politician you see below, sought to answer.
German Green party politician, Malte Spitz, recently learned [that] we are already continually being tracked whether we volunteer to be or not. Cellphone companies do not typically divulge how much information they collect, so Mr. Spitz went to court to find out exactly what his cellphone company, Deutsche Telekom, knew about his whereabouts.
The details are astonishing:
In a six-month period — from Aug 31, 2009, to Feb. 28, 2010, Deutsche Telekom had recorded and saved his longitude and latitude coordinates more than 35,000 times. It traced him from a train on the way to Erlangen at the start through to that last night, when he was home in Berlin.
But cellphone companies can't exactly help it. As Matthew Blaze, a professor of information technology at the University of Pennsylvania explains, cellphone carriers need to track you so that they can provide you with the strongest cell signal. “At any given instant, a cell company has to know where you are; it is constantly registering with the tower with the strongest signal."
The uses of this information can be far and wide-reaching--extending to law enforcement:
In the United States, there are law enforcement and safety reasons for cellphone companies being encouraged to keep track of its customers. Both the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration have used cellphone records to identify suspects and make arrests.
If the information is valuable to law enforcement, it could be lucrative for marketers. The major American cellphone providers declined to explain what exactly they collect and what they use it for.
Sense Networks, a company that works with AT&T data, uses anonymous location information “to better understand aggregate human activity.” One product, CitySense, makes recommendations about local nightlife to customers who choose to participate based on their cellphone usage. (Many smartphone apps already on the market are based on location but that’s with the consent of the user and through GPS, not the cellphone company’s records.)
So as our lives become increasingly tech-centric and digitized, so our privacy begins to erode.
The Wall Street Journal has been running a fascinating series of articles called "What They Know" about, in the Journal's words, "one of the fastest growing businesses on the Internet." What business is that? "The business of spying on American consumers." Check it out here.