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Tech Thursday, March 31st 2011 at 12:46 pm

How Much Does Your Cellphone Carrier Know About Your Life?

The German government is currently debating an issue not many in the U.S. may have thought of: how long cellphone providers should retain your personal information. After all, cellphones histories are a veritable treasure trove of information on our movements and habits, not to mention a meticulous log of whom we contacted. In order to demonstrate how much just six months worth of cellphone data reveals, German politician Malte Spitz released six months of his own cell phone data.

With this information publicly available, The Zeit online took the massive Excel spreadsheet and created an amazing visualization of Spitz’s movements from August 2009 to February 2010. The data was augmented with Spitz’s tweets and blog entries. While numbers just look like numbers, watching the little dot zip around Germany is very unsettling. During those six months, Spitz was trackable 78% of the time. You can even see how he liked to spend Christmas.

The Zeit’s main concern, aside from all that can be gleaned from call records, is that this information could be used to build profiles of cell phone users for nefarious purposes. From their article on the subject:

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.

While it is a little scary to think that your cellphone knows your location, that is just part of the cost of enjoying all the benefits it provides. The question is not, should our cellphones track us, but should those records be retained?

This has been a key issue in recent months, especially in Europe where some are promoting a “right to be forgotten.” The movement aims to give users greater control over their own data, and establish rules that allow for the loss fo data over time by companies like Facebook and Google that routinely store user data for long, long periods.

The Zeit’s visualization is as impressive as it is unnerving, and certainly highlights just how much you can learn about one person through these records alone. Interestingly, despite this information entirely focused on him, Spitz had to sue his telecom provider in order to obtain the data. I don’t know whether it should be comforting that the records were so hard to get, or despair over how we don’t seem to own meticulous records of our own movements.

(via The Zeit Online)

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