Thinking Tech

Cell phone tracking: a wireless carrier's view

Cell phone tracking: a wireless carrier's view

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When hackers revealed a bug in Apple's iPhone software that "tracked" users' locations, the company was roundly chastised. But what about carriers? How much do they know about their customers?

It's reasonable to be concerned about the abundance of data stored on your smartphone. Beyond the information that users intentionally record--text messages, photos and notes--it was recently revealed that Apple iPhones were keeping locally stored logs of individuals' whereabouts, in the form of a comprehensive list of every cell tower the device connected to. This data could be mined by anyone with access to a user's phone or personal computer, including law enforcement.

Apple quickly apologized and updated the iPhone software to eliminate long-term location logging. Nonetheless, this episode was more than enough to get people worrying about mobile phone privacy.For Malte Spitz, a German Green party politician, the followup question was obvious: If our phones know this much about us, how much do our wireless carriers know? So he asked one. Rather, he compelled one.

His own.

Spitz filed a successful lawsuit against Deutsche Telekom to obtain six months of his own detailed cellular records, which included the same type of location data that was so controversially recorded on pre-update iPhones. Combined with logs of call times and durations, SMS usage, data access, and a collection of his online activities--social media interactions, emails, blog postings--Zeit Online was able to reconstruct his every move during his day-to-day life as an active, traveling politician:

This profile reveals when Spitz walked down the street, when he took a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message. It shows which beer gardens he liked to visit in his free time. All in all, it reveals an entire life.

The full results are rather stunning, and can be explored here.

Every major carrier in the world retains data like this about their customers, and, if they so desired, could build a similar map and timeline for any user. Unlike Apple's location-logging iPhones, however, telcos have an excuse: with current technology, it would be practically impossible for a company not to know if a user's phone was utilizing to a particular cellular tower.

Devices need to be uniquely identifiable for wireless phone networks to function, and in order to bill effectively and transparently, telcos need to be able to retain and present customers with detailed records of when they made their calls, and to whom. A credit card company could construct a historical map of its customers' whereabouts based on where their service was used; so, too, could a wireless provider.

Spitz's point isn't that this data shouldn't be collected at all, but that people should be made aware of its collection, and that its retention should be better regulated. Carriers keeping location data for as long as it's of direct interest to their consumers is justifiable. Keeping it for many months, or, as is the case for most major carriers in the US, years, is far less defensible. [via Information is Beautiful]

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure