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Can You See Me Now?
March 26, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

"The results were astounding. 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. Mr. Spitz has provided a rare glimpse — an unprecedented one, privacy experts say — of what is being collected as we walk around with our phones."
posted by Scoop (45 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 


Beaten to the punch by ofthestrait, but here's the referenced article in Zeit Online (in English!), and the Google Spreadsheet containing the data.

As Matt Blaze is quited as saying in the NYT article, this isn't even the raw location data the phone company maintains in order to route your calls to you— this is a log of transactions the guy made. So presumably the location data would have even higher temporal resolution.
posted by hattifattener at 11:47 AM on March 26, 2011


Just sitting there watching the visualization of what he was doing was kind of wild. Especially the close resolution of when he was staying in Berlin and just going about his business around town. You have no privacy, get over it, indeed.
posted by immlass at 11:52 AM on March 26, 2011


But don't worry, it's not like these companies would secretly collude with governments to spy on their own citizens, right?
posted by mek at 11:57 AM on March 26, 2011


Just to make it even more obvious since the FPP is opaque, this page (google translate) contains the actual animated, interactive, visually shocking record of his cell phone usage.

We surrender so much so willingly it is no longer necessary to anticipate the total surveillance society. We are in it.
posted by Rumple at 12:05 PM on March 26, 2011


Hey New York Times, maybe you shouldn't have sat on that NSA illegal wiretapping story for a year.
posted by grounded at 12:09 PM on March 26, 2011 [17 favorites]


Sadly the first thing I thought was "Wow, a subcontractor to a major defense firm could really make some money pitching this visualization to some GS-15s for their total information awareness initiatives!"

And if they don't buy it, there's always Batman.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:15 PM on March 26, 2011


We surrender so much so willingly it is no longer necessary to anticipate the total surveillance society. We are in it.

Truly. And it evolved so perfectly that looking back, it almost looks like they hit on it a long time ago....we're a consumer culture that pretends to great freedoms and high ideals. Want to keep track of everyone, everywhere, all the time? To keep tabs on what their thinking, writing to their friends and loved ones? Well, you can either open mail and force everyone by law to carry a little locator beacon with cameras and microphones that can be turned on remotely at well, or OH! IPHONE!

The line from Hamlet is instructive: "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal..."
posted by nevercalm at 12:19 PM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


IPHONE does the extact same thing. Things like GPS/Video Chat are just common now.
posted by lambertrina at 12:20 PM on March 26, 2011


lambertrina, don't worry you can always just shut it off. /HAMBURGER
posted by Skorgu at 12:23 PM on March 26, 2011


Here's the thing: this data is incredibly valuable. Think of all the neat things you can do with it, like personal travel maps or records of a ski day. Or emergency services, or location-relevant marketing, or finding your friends downtown. So many neat things you can do if software effortlessly knows where you are.

Yes, the data is a privacy concern, and the individual user should have awareness and control over what data is recorded and how it is shared. But I want users (and their software) to just have the ability to access this data, do neat things with it. We're just now beginning to get a few basic location aware apps: Color, FourSquare, etc. Collecting the data is so awkward that only a few specialists do it. That's going to change and the mobile carriers are in a great place to help with that.
posted by Nelson at 12:37 PM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's going to change and the mobile carriers are in a great place to help with that.

The question here is who they're helping with that, and whether we, the people the data is about, have any say in the matter...
posted by brennen at 12:44 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's the thing: this data is incredibly valuable. Think of all the neat things you can do with it, like personal travel maps or records of a ski day. Or emergency services, or location-relevant marketing, or finding your friends downtown. So many neat things you can do if software effortlessly knows where you are.

Holy COW I wish I had your optimism about the intentions of corporations and government. My life would be so much less stressful.
posted by nevercalm at 12:44 PM on March 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


Today: 14-year-old finds nerd's iphone in taxi and is humiliated on the internet.

Tomorrow: 14-year-old finds suspected terrorist's iphone in taxi and is assassinated by unmanned drone.
posted by snofoam at 12:47 PM on March 26, 2011 [17 favorites]


The data is incredibly valuable. That's precisely why the carriers should not have access to it. None of the applications you describe rely on the carriers having your location information.
posted by ofthestrait at 12:49 PM on March 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Surely this is no big surprise for anyone? I can track my own movements and that of several friends in a lot of detail (should one choose) using Google Latitude, which does the same detailed plotting and visual display on Google maps.
posted by greenhornet at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2011


My first cellphone was this silver Nokia that came free with signing up with T-Mobile almost a decade ago. It was so old school that it had a black and green screen. But I didn't want to text, surf the web or play games on a phone, so I didn't care. All I wanted was a phone.

So, I was still using it summer before last when, upon leaving the Sunday farmer's market in West Seattle with four flats of bedding plants, I called a cab. Before I could get a word in edgewise about my location, the dispatcher read off the address for the door behind me where I was standing and said a cab would be there in ten minutes. And it was. It's not just I-phones, it's any old phone at all. And any old business one calls can no doubt access such information and no doubt save it and no doubt sell it, should they be so inclined.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on March 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't get it. Who doesn't understand that that is how mobile phones work? If you don't want your location to be recorded, don't carry a phone. Data banking is part of your contract with the service provider.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:17 PM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


The finding someone in real-time (or using cellphone records for historical info) has been a plot device for catching bad guys on TV and movies for years. The cops or governments are catching bad guys! Yay! But if the tech is used to catch the good guys? Booo! But it seems abundantly clear that if you don't want to be tracked (either in real time or in the historical sense) you don't carry a phone.

I'm excited about the new world of location based applications. I'm less excited about the potential for abuse by governments. If AT&T wants to use my location data to help plan better coverage that's fine. But if they turn the data over to the government without a warrant I'm pissed. If the government under the guise of freedom and American Apple Pie want to just have it. That doesn't' work either. True bad guys won't use phones associated with their name. That will get harder and harder to do as the governments of the world crack down on the "burner" phone market.

My location is essential to being able to complete the call or have a data session. I get that. But at what point can the telco toss that info? After they bill me? After the last day when I can dispute an old charge? After their tax year? Or is there some other retention policy?
posted by birdherder at 1:24 PM on March 26, 2011


Who doesn't understand that that is how mobile phones work?

Virtually everyone.
posted by mhoye at 1:38 PM on March 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


Here's the thing: this data is incredibly valuable. Think of all the neat things you can do with it, like personal travel maps or records of a ski day. Or emergency services, or location-relevant marketing, or finding your friends downtown. So many neat things you can do if software effortlessly knows where you are.
It's really useful to advertisers and corporations. But actually, I pretty much already know where I am.
Yes, the data is a privacy concern, and the individual user should have awareness and control over what data is recorded and how it is shared.
My phone has a GPS chip in it, but why should that necessitate anyone else knowing where I am? Just load the phone with pre-installed maps, or download city-level maps. Tracking people's every move is unnecessary. (other then for which cell tower to use, which is much less granular, and doesn't require GPS/wifi location data).

Oh, you know about wifi location right? Google recorded the locations of millions of access points and your phone can use that data to determine its location without using GPS. And hackers can use that information to figure out where you are if they can get your MAC address. Fun times.
But if they turn the data over to the government without a warrant I'm pissed.
How would you ever know?

I'm kind of annoyed with people's attitudes on this "Oh, location based products and services!!!!" Who cares? Being tracked everywhere seems like a bigger problem. And of course it possible to build this technology in a way that preserves privacy. There's no requirement that location data ever be shared in order to do most of the things you're used too (for example, in-car GPSes don't share your location, their maps are pre-installed) But privacy means people can't exploit the data that gets generated.
posted by delmoi at 1:46 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see someone try a FOIA request for this type of location information for members of cogress' government paid blackberries.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:50 PM on March 26, 2011 [12 favorites]


y2karl: I called a cab. Before I could get a word in edgewise about my location, the dispatcher read off the address for the door behind me where I was standing and said a cab would be there in ten minutes. And it was. It's not just I-phones, it's any old phone at all. And any old business one calls can no doubt access such information and no doubt save it and no doubt sell it, should they be so inclined.

Wait -- really? I knew this information was being piped through to 911 dispatchers, but has it been common knowledge at all that taxi dispatchers could purchase this information? Can just anyone? Like super caller ID for a cellphone age?
posted by nobody at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2011


Here's the thing: this data is incredibly valuable. Think of all the neat things you can do with it, like personal travel maps or records of a ski day. Or emergency services, or location-relevant marketing, or finding your friends downtown. So many neat things you can do if software effortlessly knows where you are.

I do not think any of these things are neat, and if I could find a phone that allowed me to opt out of having these things recorded, I would do it in a hot minute. But that is not possible. Instead, my choices are, no phone and keep some privacy, or phone and lose all privacy. That is all. For the moment, I consider myself a faceless enough member of the multitude that I am have made choice b. But I would not characterize that choice as "willing."
posted by Diablevert at 2:03 PM on March 26, 2011


Instead, my choices are, no phone and keep some privacy, or phone and lose all privacy. That is all.
You could get a pre-paid SIM card off ebay or craigslist or something.
posted by delmoi at 2:11 PM on March 26, 2011


> You could get a pre-paid SIM card off ebay or craigslist or something.
delmoi, you're forgetting about the IMEI number. Swapping SIMs is not enough.
posted by simoncion at 2:20 PM on March 26, 2011


You could get a pre-paid SIM card off ebay or craigslist or something.

For now you can just use burner phones. However, there is talk in DC about requiring prepaid cellphone users to register since apparently only drug dealers and terrorists care about privacy.
posted by birdherder at 2:25 PM on March 26, 2011


You could get a pre-paid SIM card off ebay or craigslist or something.


Presumably they collect the data on that as well, yes? It'd be fine for arranging a drug deal, because I could use and then destroy the card presumably before the DEA had enough on me to get it tapped/have the data pulled, but as a day to day affair I've got to tell people what my number is for them to call me, and pretty soon the number will be easily attached to me, even if it starts out anonymous. On the irritant side, the "location aware marketing" or whatever doesn't need my name to work, just my location and my habits. The most using an anonymous pre-paid SIM card would do would be to make it more difficult to attach my name to my data file. But the file would still exist.
posted by Diablevert at 2:26 PM on March 26, 2011


So why can't we find bin Laden again?
posted by sharpener at 3:04 PM on March 26, 2011


delmoi It's really useful to advertisers and corporations.

Your location at a time is just a point of data, useful to those who would do you harm (stalker, cop fishing for people to arrest for things, scammer), or who would help you (ambulance, your friends and family (most of the time), search-and-rescue), or who can be paid to do some service for you (taxi, phone company, pizza delivery, boat hire). Generally you want the first to be prevented from getting the data, the second to get it by default, and the third to be given it for a purpose and duration.

It's the same class of problem as data copyright - an attempt to socially/culturally constrain the inherent properties of the thing. Data doesn't know it's copyright, and there is no easy means of inherently knowing whether it is (and where and when) or not. You can add some indicators, like a (c) symbol and date, but absolutely nothing stops people from ignoring this or bypassing technological prevention of the natural action of data: to be copied. Same with your location. The inherent property of data locating/timing you is that it allows people to know where you have been, to guess where you are, and to predict where you will be.

So as with copyright, the only way to get it constrained down from its natural use is for the society to have a public conversation about it, and for that conversation to reflect the actual values and attitudes of the actual public. As with copyright and drug use, this may--likely will--differ wildly from the values, attitudes and agendas of the legislators and corporations who control and write the laws.

But actually, I pretty much already know where I am.

Pretty much, just as you pretty much know where the $250 you thought you had in your wallet because you took it out of the ATM on Tuesday all went ... but it's still a bit of a surprise on Friday to find that you have $10.90 left. We forget, we excuse, we mismanage, and we blind ourselves, subconsciously and consciously, to the actuality of our lives. The only way to avoid doing things like this is to measure our actions. Now it may or may not be worth it for any given thing; setting yourself a food budget of $40/day may end up, in actuality, saving you only $300 a year, and that's nothing much, but unless you measured (or guessed, which still requires an element of heuristic measuring), you wouldn't have known to do that.

Same with geo/chrono-location: you may discover that you spend three hours a week on a bus that goes this way, whereas if you took that one instead and walked the extra ten minutes from the stop to-from work, you'd save yourself 12 minutes a day and get more exercise. And so on. Conscious, intelligent planning of policy based on factual observation works as well for an individual as it does for an enterprise or a society.

Even if you grant no-one else the right to track you (a potentially dangerous decision), you still have the right to track yourself. If the data is being gathered, even if the gatherers themselves are not keeping it, you still have the right to keep it yourself.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:12 PM on March 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


> You could get a pre-paid SIM card off ebay or craigslist or something.

delmoi, you're forgetting about the IMEI number. Swapping SIMs is not enough.

You're also forgetting about integration of other data into the surveillance pipeline and advanced data-mining techniques.

For example, given most people probably spend most of their time at home, it could be predicted with decent accuracy who the owner of a phone is given it's location history.

Pattern matching could be made against previous phone call records to find similar matches. E.g. "this person follows this travel pattern, this new travel pattern only differs by x%". Matching with surveillance video makes it even more accurate. "We detected this person at this location using facial recognition at 11:00AM and at 11:30AM at this location. These points match in the location log for this mobile device."

Also, other people in your previously identified social network can be used to identify phone owners. "This phone has been found in the proximity of these other phones for large portions of time or in statistically significant unique locations."

It takes extremely dedicated and careful practice to leave no digital trail.

For example, here are some other tracking things most people don't know about: The EFF fought the enhanced 911 service for mobile phones when it was first proposed. They foresaw the abuses, at a time when most people didn't understand. Most people still don't. Video surveillance technology is following the same pattern.

Once the architecture is in place, the software can always be improved.
posted by formless at 3:21 PM on March 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


I have heard that my bank could provide a record of every single place I have used my credit card, and every single purchase. Scary!
posted by iviken at 3:33 PM on March 26, 2011


sharpener: "So why can't we find bin Laden again?"

Because he's smart enough to use a scrambled satellite phone?
posted by bwg at 4:25 PM on March 26, 2011


Store discount cards and credit cards are being used to build a unique purchase database which is being analyzed with data mining.

This is one of those things that is completely obvious when you think about it, but nobody does. As an example, Starbucks recently announced that you can get free refills at any Starbucks if you use a registered Starbucks card. This explicitly acknowledges that the registered Starbucks card gives the company the ability to know if any individual bought a coffee at any other Starbucks earlier in the day. Not only are they tracking your buying habits but they want you to register so they can track your movement between locations, and your buying habits at each. Having your address additionally allows them to plot your daily commute and identify what types of products you typically buy at each location. Presumably because other businesses such as supermarkets already do this kind of aggregate analysis, and use this information for location planning to maximize sales.

When you get into advanced logistical planning, I'd imagine that this kind of data access is taken for granted. If I am Whole Foods and I need to distribute 10 000 lbs of shiitake mushrooms to all of my stores in LA, how do I best determine who gets how much? Going by last week's sales is the old tech method that mom and pop shops would do (supplemented by instinct and guesswork), but predicting next week's sales store-by-store via identification of buying trends through analysis of giant customer databases is where the money is.

BC has an excellent personal information privacy law which would allow for similar disclosures as happened here in Germany. I might just have to make some requests and see exactly what is going on with these technologies.
posted by mek at 4:36 PM on March 26, 2011


As an example, Starbucks recently announced that you can get free refills at any Starbucks if you use a registered Starbucks card. This explicitly acknowledges that the registered Starbucks card gives the company the ability to know if any individual bought a coffee at any other Starbucks earlier in the day.

If only that were true. The free refill only applies if you use it in the "same visit" which happens in the same store:
When you’re at Starbucks you feel at home. Paying with your registered Starbucks Card gets you brewed or iced coffee or tea refills at no charge during your visit to a participating store.

You must use your registered Starbucks Card to purchase a hot or iced brewed coffee or tea and then present that same card for refills during the same visit. Offer not valid on Pour Over, Starbucks Reserve TM or Clover Brewed coffees, or at Drive Thru locations. Offer subject to change. (source)
posted by birdherder at 5:16 PM on March 26, 2011


You have no privacy, get over it, indeed.

You have no privacy when you're carrying around a GPS-enabled network device that by design can effortlessly operate over several different types of available networks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:11 PM on March 26, 2011


14-year-old finds suspected terrorist's iphone in taxi and is assassinated by unmanned drone.

The term is liberated.
posted by ODiV at 9:03 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The data is incredibly valuable. That's precisely why the carriers should not have access to it.

The carriers have to have access to this data in order for you to receive incoming calls or texts. And for that matter, the carriers are the folks generating this data in the first place. That's fundamentally how cellular systems work.

What's interesting about this article is that the guy was able to get a copy of his own data.
posted by hattifattener at 1:15 AM on March 27, 2011


We forget, we excuse, we mismanage, and we blind ourselves, subconsciously and consciously, to the actuality of our lives. The only way to avoid doing things like this is to measure our actions. Now it may or may not be worth it for any given thing; setting yourself a food budget of $40/day may end up, in actuality, saving you only $300 a year, and that's nothing much, but unless you measured (or guessed, which still requires an element of heuristic measuring), you wouldn't have known to do that.
What? Yes, people forget things, but so what? People lived for thousands of years with the occasional lapse. It's not that big of a deal.
posted by delmoi at 2:19 AM on March 27, 2011


sharpener: "So why can't we find bin Laden again?"

Because he's smart enough to use a scrambled satellite phone?


Because he's smart enough not to use a phone.
posted by mhoye at 6:31 AM on March 27, 2011


What? Yes, people forget things, but so what? People lived for thousands of years with the occasional lapse. It's not that big of a deal.

People lived for thousands of years without writing anything, too. When writing was invented, Socrates was pissed that people didn't take memory seriously anymore.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:43 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Those were the days.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:15 AM on March 27, 2011


You have no privacy when you're carrying around a GPS-enabled network device that by design can effortlessly operate over several different types of available networks.

Yeah, basically anyone who wants to use technology invented after about 1970 is insufficiently interested in their privacy, I get that. If you want privacy, give up your internet connection, your mobile phone (smart or dumb), probably your recent vintage car, and a lot more stuff. If you use any payment mechanism other than cash, or any kind of incentive like a loyalty or discount card, you should expect to have your purchases tracked in detail. Etc. etc. etc. It's still somewhat shocking to see the level of detail that computers can produce about a single person by crunching through available data on them.

Being tracked like a microchipped pet or giving up a lot of modern technology is not a particularly appealing choice (to the extent that you still have the choice). The fact that people tend to choose the conveniences of technology, even without a full awareness of the level of data mining that can be performed on them personally, doesn't make them stupid. Nor does being disturbed by seeing the data belonging to a single individual laid out, even if you understand the theory.
posted by immlass at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


You have no privacy when you're carrying around a GPS-enabled network device that by design can effortlessly operate over several different types of available networks.

Well, technopeasant that I am, I had no idea that something as seemingly barebones and primitive as a Nokia 3390 would have such a feature until I called that cab.

But at least it did not sign me up for some texting scam on its own as its replacement did. (I thought I had the texting turned off on that one but kept getting text spam from a number I did not recognize. I merely opened one of the messages and got dinged $10 on my next bill for signing up for an outside text hosting service when I had never replied to the damn text in the first place. )
posted by y2karl at 10:08 AM on March 27, 2011


y2karl wrote: "Well, technopeasant that I am, I had no idea that something as seemingly barebones and primitive as a Nokia 3390 would have such a feature until I called that cab."

It's a feature of the network, not the phone. As part of the wireless E911 initiative, carriers either had to ensure that a certain percentage of the phones used on their network had GPS capability or outfit their networks with the capability of triangulating any phone's location. In the US, the GSM carriers went with the latter, while the CDMA carriers went with the former (generally).

Triangulation is generally only good to within a hundred meters or so, but in a dense urban situation, it can do much better.
posted by wierdo at 12:10 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


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