How Much Does Your Phone Company Know About Your Life?

By Sean Carroll | March 31, 2011 8:18 am

Let’s just round up and say “everything.” In Germany they are currently debating rules on what data companies can keep and analyze, vs. what they must throw away. To make a point, Green Party politician Malte Spitz went to court to force Deutsche Telekom to share the data they had collected about him, just from his mobile phone. What is revealed, basically, is where he was essentially at every moment of the day. Spitz handed the information over to Zeit Online, who combined it with information he revealed himself via Twitter and his blog, to make a scarily detailed chronological map of his daily activities. (Via

Check it out, they have a great animated reconstruction of Spitz’s daily movings, combined with a sidebar display saying how many phone conversations he was having and how many text messages. There’s even a spreadsheet so you can play with the data yourself if you are so inclined. They removed the actual phone numbers with which he was communicating, but of course the phone company has those.

People can decide for themselves whether this is intrusive or benign; more than a few people put nearly as much information online anyway, without thinking twice. But you should know that it’s out there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • Scott B

    Of course it’s intrusive. Maybe not actively, but the potential abuse of this kind of information is scary. Phone companies should have to throw everything out except for when a call was made, to and from what number, and how long the call lasted. I understand that phone companies what as much information as possible so they can mine the data for ways to make money and to improve their service. There’s no valid reason to keep things like GPS data in a form where it can be linked to specific individuals though.

  • panini

    Where I live, I think the government actually requires phone companies to keep all these data for a number of years, in case a crime investigation needs them. This country is the one with the mafia, btw…

  • Fill

    Old news.

  • Chris

    @Scott B

    It’s not gps; they do this by triangulating your signal strength from the known locations of cell towers.

    .. and here in EU they are required by law to keep this data. :(

  • Jason Dick

    The problem, for me, is that knowledge is power. With this sort of knowledge, phone companies may be able to find a variety of different ways to influence our behavior without our knowing about it. And that, to me, is horribly dangerous, because they would do this to exploit us for money.

  • Robert

    You got the context slightly wrong. It is not about the phone companies wanting to keep the data but it is about a law that required the phone companies to keep this data and provide law enforcement with it whenever they ask, you know, terrorism jadda jadda, and while we are at it any other illegal activities we can think of.

    That law luckily was stopped by the German constitutional court but there is political discussion (and Malte Spitz’ publication is part of it) whether and how they can still install a similar law about data retention.

    Officially, the law is not about geolocation, it is about telecommunication metadata: When you make a phone call, who you call, who calls you (and coicidentally, from which cell in case of a cell phone). But it is not restricted to phones. ISP must also store the information which IP address you were using and whom you sent email to. You can see, it’s all about terrorism.

    But of course the true stake-holders are the content industry: They collect IP numbers of file sharers and often fail to connect those to offenders because the association IP->customer is not stored long enough by the ISPs. This is where the new law would have helped. The fact, that storing all this info allows to track people is only a side effect but it was this side effect which convinced the constitutional court that the law is unconstutional.

  • Phillip Helbig

    There are actually advantages here: it allows emergency calls from mobile phones to be located. Consider that in some cases (concussion etc), victims might be disoriented, might not even know who they are, maybe a small child dials the “hot-key” emergency number etc.

    I find it a bit strange that someone who uses Twitter is concerned about his privacy.

    At the end of the day, these privacy advocates don’t have any better argument than “I was in the brothel and my wife shouldn’t find out”.

    It is incredibly naive to think that a government which would maliciously use data to harm its citizens can be prevented from harming its citizens if the government doesn’t have as much data. Throughout history, dictators have been happy killing citizens even whose names weren’t even known.

    In Germany, there is, for various reasons, a strong fear of abuse of data (along with an irrational fear of draughts, as in wind from an open window). Each country has its own irrational fears. In the US it is “creeping socialism”, in China it is “democracy” and so on. Although one can rarely copy something from another country one-to-one, often a look across the border is a good thing. In the debate about working women, day-care for children, how families should be taxed etc, many politicians suggest looking at Scandinavia, where these things are handled quite differently (and, in the opinions of some, much better). However, they should also take a look at the degree to which data are public in Scandinavia. In the old days, one could go to city hall and look into a book which stated how much each person earned, how much tax each person paid, how much savings they had—anyone could have a look, for any reason. Today, it’s freely available on the internet. This would be unthinkable in Germany. However, the feared disadvantages haven’t occurred in Scandinavia. If anything, it is one of the reasons that corruption (in all its guises, probably the biggest single problem in the world today, and the root of many other problems) is so low in Scandinavia (and Finland).

  • chris

    well, the point is not the transparency itself. if everything was transparent – fine. but think of wikileaks.

    so basically, the us government is able to access any data they want but nobody is able to get any relevant information on them.

    there is an information food chain because the ones on the top have realized that this is the way to power nowadays. just look at the NYSE and buy a subscription of their 30 milliseconds pre-alert of trading and you can see how directly information relates to power today.

    this information farming is extremely dangerous as long as an exclusive circle of people has sole access to it. if all this data was publicly available, there would be no problem at all.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “if all this data was publicly available, there would be no problem at all.”


    I still contest the point that the big danger is the government having access to information which other people don’t. Basically, a government bad enough to mis-use that information would do things not in the interest of the population even if it didn’t have the information. There are some sorts of information which it is OK for the government to have but not OK for Joe Citizen to have, at least in my view.

    Most privacy advocates I have met are people who don’t want to pay musicians for their work and hence download music, films etc illegally and pathetically try to couch their defense in terms of an appeal to Tom Paine, civil liberties, the Enlightenment etc.

  • Scott B

    I was thinking it was bad enough that the phone company had this data and could give it to the government under court order. The EU requiring they keep this data is far, far worse.

    @Phillip Helbig

    All governments are bad enough to misuse their power. It’s a basic flaw of human nature. That’s why modern democratic systems have checks in place and certain rights enumerated for the people. To try to decentralize power as much as possible to slow down corruption. I’d agree there are some things it’s OK for the government to have that citizens do not. I don’t see the justification for them having access to peoples’ locations at every moment of the day.

  • Lab Lemming

    I wonder if they can tell me where my phone goes during those 2-3 days stints where I can’t find it.

  • Lord

    Sell it. Let the phone company offer free service in exchange for use of the information and let the customers choose.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “All governments are bad enough to misuse their power. It’s a basic flaw of human nature. That’s why modern democratic systems have checks in place and certain rights enumerated for the people.”

    Right, it’s just that if some government wants to abuse their power, lack of data won’t stop them. “What a bummer! We don’t have all the details we need on our enemies and thus can’t do anything!” I don’t think any government ever heard or thought that. Ever heard of just imprisoning or killing people for no reason at all? Lack of data won’t stop that. It is incredibly naive to believe that keeping data from a government will prevent that government from doing evil.

    “To try to decentralize power as much as possible to slow down corruption.”

    I don’t see any correlation between decentralisation and lack of corruption.

    “I’d agree there are some things it’s OK for the government to have that citizens do not. I don’t see the justification for them having access to peoples’ locations at every moment of the day.”

    If one has nothing to hide, no harm is done. On the other hand, it can come in handy tracking down criminals etc. Yes, really adamant criminals will have other methods of communication, but a) it will still attract some and b) the fact that it could be done is a deterrent. Read about the police strike in Canada. It is a sad fact that fear of retribution is what keeps many people from committing crimes.

  • Robert

    The ‘have nothing to hide” argument has been shown to be wrong at least a million times. People that have nothing to hide need not cloths on warm days, do not have curtains and ask the postman to remove the envelopes of all their mail already at the post office before delivery.

    Furthermore “the gpvernmet” is not just the president and his handful of close advisors. It is everybody including your local policeman and everybody in any official office etc. Under normal circumstances they should not have access to where I spend my weekends and whom I meet. At least not unless there is substancial evidence that I am a criminal.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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