German Politician Exposes Personal Data Gathered by Cell Phone Companies
Spitz recently sued his mobile provider, Deutsche Telekom, in order to obtain data that the company had collected on his own whereabouts. Deutsche Telekom complied, and handed over all the geographic information it had gathered over a six-month period. As it turns out, the provider recorded Spitz's location on more than 35,000 occasions in six months, or about 78-percent of the time.
Deutsche Telekom knew where he worked, where he liked to hang out, and which cities he visited. It knew when he was flying, when he was sleeping, and when he was most likely to send text messages. Spitz, on the other hand, never even knew that he was being tracked. The data is even more striking when represented visually, as it is in this interactive map from German newspaper Zeit.
Spitz, a privacy advocate, says he decided to publish his personal information in order to emphasize the breadth of Deutsche Telekom's surveillance. "It was an important point to show this is not some kind of a game," he told the New York Times. "I want to show the political message that this kind of data retention is really, really big and you can really look into the life of people for six months and see what they are doing where they are."
Cell phone companies are constantly gathering data on their customers' whereabouts in order to efficiently route calls through nearby towers. But U.S. law doesn't require these providers to report the information they collect. Law enforcement agencies actually encourage companies to keep close tabs on consumers, since cell phone data is often critical to criminal investigations.
That information could also be of interest to many marketers, but some U.S. cell phone companies have been less than forthcoming about how they use our personal data. In a statement provided to the Times, Verizon acknowledged that "[i]nformation such as call records, service usage, traffic data," could be used in targeted marketing campaigns, "based on your use of the products and services you already have, subject to any restrictions required by law." AT&T, meanwhile, confirmed that it works with a company called Sense Networks in order to analyze geographic data and "to better understand aggregate human activity."
Regardless of how our personal information is used, the fact remains that cell phone companies are constantly following us whether we like it or not. "We are all walking around with little tags, and our tag has a phone number associated with it, who we called and what we do with the phone," Sarah Williams, a graphic information expert at Columbia University, told the Times. "We don't even know we are giving up that data."