Data ProtectionBetrayed by our own data
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Phone numbers would reveal to much

Deutsche Telekom’s dataset already kept one part of Spitz’s data record private, namely, whom he called and who called him. That kind of information could not only infringe on the privacy of many other people in his life, it would also, even if the numbers were encrypted, reveal much too much about Spitz (but government agents in the real world would have access to this information).

While data retention allows for the creation of a profile of an individual’s movements, it also paints a picture of a person’s relationships. The data reveal who is a friend and who is family. The information shines light on clandestine connections as well as illicit love affairs.

Spitz is a politician, and as a member of the Greens’ leadership council he’s on the road a lot. While this means he is not an average citizen in some ways, his frequent use of his mobile phone – making calls, texting and surfing the internet – is decidedly mainstream for many these days. 

Every ten minutes, Spitz’s phone checked in with his provider to see if there were new e-mails, a function that many smart-phone owners have activated. Since his phone was rarely turned off, Spitz’s movements were tracked 78 percent of the time.

Six months – that’s how long many German politicians want data on calls and e-mail exchanges to be retained and it’s the same amount of time Spitz made himself available. Such a period would clearly suffice for investigators to be sure a person had no more secrets. Indeed, as long as a mobile telephone is turned on, the activities of its owner are being broadcast. And even if a phone isn’t on all the time, there can still be enough information available to create an accurate profile.

Thirty years ago, Kraftwerk’s line "Flensburg and the BKA" described a world where personal data had slipped out of our control and into the hands of big government agencies. Today, that lyric would have to be changed to: Telekom and the BKA, they’ve got all our data squirreled away.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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