Data Protection : Betrayed by our own data

Mobile phones are tracking devices that reveal much about our lives. One look at our interactive map of data provided by the Green party politician Malte Spitz shows why.
A visualization of data collected by Malte Spitz's mobile phone © ZEIT ONLINE

The seminal electronic band Kraftwerk was well ahead of the curve musically, but even the lyrics to their 1981 song "Computerwelt" can seem uncannily prescient. "Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard, Flensburg and the BKA, they’ve got all our data squirreled away." What was unimaginable 30 years ago later sounded rather threatening. But today, the words are downright silly.

While government authorities like the BKA, Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, (and the country’s database of traffic violations in Flensburg) do indeed have a trove of information about us, the greatest source of data about our lives is much more banal. The real snitch is in our pocket – our own mobile phone betrays us. That’s why the Chaos Computer Club has rechristened the powerful mini-computers we carry around with us as "tracking devices" revealing where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing.

In a report prepared for Germany’s Constitutional Court in July 2009 , the hacker group described what kind of information could in theory be collected according to the country’s data retention (Vorratsdatenspeicherung) rules and what could be gleaned from it. The court later stopped data retention as it was practiced at the time, but law enforcement officials and the government have by no means abandoned the concept. The possibilities offered by such seemingly harmless data are just too seductive. In the next few weeks, the German government is set to decide on new data retention rules.

Most people’s understanding of what can actually be done with the data provided by our mobile phones is theoretical; there were few real-world examples. That is why Malte Spitz from the German Green party decided to publish his own data collected from August 2009 to February 2010. However, to even access the information, he had to file a suit against telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom.

Click on the graphic to access the interactive map© ZEIT ONLINE

The data, which ZEIT ONLINE has made available for download and acts as the basis for our accompanying interactive map , were contained in a massive Excel document. Each of the 35.831 rows of the spreadsheet represents an instance when Spitz’s mobile phone transferred information over a half-year period. Seen individually, the pieces of data are mostly inconsequential and harmless. But taken together, they provide what investigators call a profile – a clear picture of a person’s habits and preferences, and indeed, of his or her life.

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.

To illustrate just how much detail from someone’s life can be mined from this stored data, ZEIT ONLINE has "augmented" Spitz’s information with records that anyone can access: the politician’s tweets and blog entries were added to the information on his movements. It is the kind of process that any good investigator would likely use to profile a person under observation.

To prove how exact the data provided by his mobile phone is, his appointments are also shown as they were publicized on the Greens’ website. The locations revealed by mobile towers are mirrored there.


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2 Kommentare Kommentieren

Violation of privacy or useful information?

Apart from being a little scary privacy wise I thought this was just plain cool data and perfect to do a little data visualisation with. Check out the interactive Tableau dashboard on Malte Spitz's call habits yourself and play with his data here:

Granted, this looks like a massive violation of privacy but let's take a breath and think for a second before we jump to conclusions. It wasn't the telco who maliciously released the data but the politician who requested and then published it on a newspaper so I fail to see the threat to be honest.

Of course companies are collecting data on our product usage and if you look at the data for a second from a telco's point of view and assume it's not just one person's data, then it becomes clear that the data contains quite a lot of information that could be used to either improve service quality in certain geographic regions or offer extended support hours for some services for example.

On the other hand, there are companies that are just collecting data for the sake of collecting data without a clear plan of how they're going to use it to improve their products and services - in my eyes that's the true issue here and much more of a problem than the collection of potentially sensible data in general.

Could government use mobile tracking data for urban planning?

For example, by tracking how people move around one can get a better estimate of transportation needs, see traffic between various cities by all modes (plane, car, rail, bike) and then adjust train/bus schedules, adapt transportation network, look up optimal locations for residential areas etc. I'm pretty sure there are many other ways to use this data for everyone's benefit.