Your mobile phone is watching you ... closely


March 31, 2011

Digital tracking: it might come as a shock to see just how much of a footprint we leave as we go about our daily lives

Digital tracking: it might come as a shock to see just how much of a footprint we leave as we go about our daily lives

While most of us know it is theoretically possible for our movements to be tracked by detecting which tower our mobile phone is connected too, it might come as a shock to see just how much of a digital footprint we leave as we go about our daily lives. German Green Party politician Malte Spitz and German newspaper Die Zeit have provided a frightening insight into just how much information can be gleaned from the digital breadcrumbs we drop every day by creating an interactive map showing Spitz's movements and activities over a five month period based on mobile phone data and information freely available on the internet.

To get hold of his mobile phone data, Spitz sued his service provider, German telco giant Deutsche Telekom. He then provided the phone data, which included geolocation and time and date information, to Die Zeit who combined the data with information freely available on the internet – including Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites – that related to his life as a politician to create an interactive map of Spitz's movements and activities.

And before you start thinking a public figure like Spitz is going to generate more data than your average man in the street, you might want to take a moment to consider just how many tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates you fire off on a daily basis.

In the age of ubiquitous computing and technologies such as RFID chips, the ability for corporations and governments to track not only our movements but also our activities is only set to increase and raises questions about the rights of individuals to privacy in the digital age. But as shown by Die Zeit's interactive map, which was based on data collected from August 2009 to February 2010, the information required to form a pretty detailed picture of our lives is already out there.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Any information that can be abused, almost certainly will be, by either gummint or big business.

Facebook User

\"...take a moment to consider just how many tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates you fire off on a daily basis.\"

Zilch, zero, or even none. Am I the only one out here without an account on any of those services?

And if people are worried about privacy and being tracked, don\'t forget that this is entirely voluntary. No-one forces you to carry a mobile or use social networking as if it was more important than bread & butter...

Did we all sit around staring at the ceiling in the years before we all had mobiles? (call me a Luddite if you will!)


It would seem that Big Brother likes our little toys.

Facebook User

now if we could just RFid tag everyone so that we know the user is the owner, we would have an mate for DNA evidence and a cheating spouse\'s worst nightmare.


Not my phone. I use a dumbphone -- non-camera version. I keep location service off. I only use my iPT occasionally outside the house, and never for secure stuff.

Terence Griffin

agulsin, you\'re not alone. I don\'t have an over-inflated opinion of myself therefore I don\'t feel that there\'s people out there that need an instant update on every (140-character or less) thought that pops into my head. My phone is also off unless I (rarely) need to make a call away from home or under special circumstances. If I\'m out I\'m... out, doing something, and thus don\'t want/need to be on the phone. That\'s the purpose of answering machines and voice mail.


This is brilliant. Most court cases would be solved in like one day if this was a tool used by police detectives.


Great way to frame someone...just steal their phone.

Facebook User

@agulesin alcalde You may be less talkative via social media, but the claim \"zero\" is clearly wrong for both of you. Gizmag is a blog. You both posted here and probably do so other places too... The point isn\'t what can be deduced from the info we willingly share. The trouble is that incredible detail is available when joining a large number of sources. The only way to avoid that is: Have no phone, no internet, no credit card, no motorized vehicle, never enter cities, never use public transport, etc, and only meet people living by the same rules. Some religious groups would qualify. Otherwise living in the wilderness is the only realistic option.

The fact is: All here, and almost everybody else in the modern world can be quite well checked and analysed if the right people want to, who quite often may be the wrong people... Info available to criminals or commercial interests is an obvious problem, and a real one as what might happen will also definitely happen, given time.

A less obvious problem is if the legal authorities get hold of all this detail info: The normal claim is that it\'s no problem as long as one does no wrong. That\'s wrong! Real cases show that too much info about too many makes legal systems twisted. Normal principle is: \"Innocent until proven guilty.\" Well, if a crime occurs, like a robbery, find out who was around at the time, find out who seems to need money, find out spent some just a bit later, etc. Quite rapidly a number of people will look like the probable sinner. They will have to explain why so many indications point to them. Guilty until proven innocent...

Stein Varjord

agulsin and alcaide spot on, I do the same, I have a stoopid phone too, have no need for facebook

Bill Bennett

It does not matter if you phone is on or off, it still broadcasts your location. Only by doing a battery pull is the phone truly off and not broadcasting.

Facebook User

I think most people don\'t care about this whole privacy issue. I think it is mostly the pot heads and junkies that are paranoid. Personally I think it would be really nice to have a website that told all my friends where I was at any given time. Then again I am an honest and open person. I think a lot of crimes would be prevented and a lot of relationships would be better if our daily travels weren\'t secrets. When I was young you almost always told someone where you were going, because there were no cell phones so if they had to reach you they needed to know who to call.

Hell I would pay 10 bucks if my carrier would post the location of my phone on the web.

Michael Mantion

No - the phone does not broadcast your location - it negotiates with the cell towers periodically to figure out what delay it needs to introduce into packets it sends back, so that it\'s incomnig packets don\'t collide with other phones at different distances from the tower. The delay combined with the speed of light can be used to \"triangulate\" your approximate location.

Stick your phone next to your car radio - you can hear it\'s buzz as it periodically does this. You\'ll also note that it doesn\'t do this all that often - so yeah - a map can be built from this data, but it\'s not like a GPS tracklog or anything - it\'s very rough.

Obviously - if you\'re actually talking on the phone, it\'s doing this continuously then, so that \"map\" is going to be more accurate - assuming the phone company records this info - which in Spitz\'s case, it seems they do... tch tch tch...

It\'s also cheap to build fake cell towers, and/or portable cell proxy towers - so it\'s not just phone companies who could gather this data - if they wanted to - a well equipped adversary can do it themselves too.

If you own an old Nokia mobile phone - do the hack to put it into service mode, and you can actually see all this data on the screen, and even triangualte yourself if you want to :-)


And if you are using an iPhone, you are sharing information with more than just your carrier! Every iPhone...every single one ever made and ever iPhone that will be made in the future calls home to Apple EVERY DAY and sends Apple a list of things you did with your iPhone for that day, how long you spent on each thing and what you were doing with each thing. So, Think on that next time you\'re playing Angry Birds!


Hey Mike Mantion, the pot head and junkies are going to raid your house once they know you\'re out.


Well, Earlier it was possible to do so by hiring goons to follow you. Now its possible using Cell phones. 20 years from now they will use satellite imaging to do so. When you are walking in many cities you are already seen by many cameras.

Its not going to change. No one will track you unless needed, cause it will generate so much data that these companies can do without. A telephone company already has Tera Bites of data a day to store and process for your billing alone. If they go around storing where ever you go, even for the last 2 days, they have to buy data center the size of two Google. Just because they can, doesnt mean they want to.

The solution is probably to make it illegal to store information pertaining your location without your consent. Once that is done, you cannot present those sources in courts. They could still mis use them like they do with bugs.

Arun Murali
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