Why I Dislike GPS Tracking (and My SmartPhone): Wired’s Article on Telecoms’ Retention of Personal Data
Before I begin, I must admit my own personal bias: I have a love/hate relationship with personal devices and technology. Yes, I love that all the devices I now use have made my life so much easier in more ways than I can count (and keep track of). At the same time, I really do hate how much more information is captured about me and how there are so few regulations regarding the use of it. Now, if you read our (Terence and I co-authored) book on Privacy and Big Data or listened to our recent O’Reilly webcast you might not be surprised by this but, just in case, I needed to come clean before I dived into Wired’s article on how much data our major mobile providers are keeping about all of us. Put simply, it’s a lot.
The ACLU of North Carolina managed, under a Freedom of Information Act claim, to obtain a Department of Justice document entitled “Retention Periods of Major Cellular Service Providers.” This document (one page) was designed to help law enforcement agencies understand what information they could get from the major cellular service providers—Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T/Cingular, Sprint, Nextel, Virgin Mobile—as well as how long that data was retained:
“Verizon, for example, keeps a list of everyone you’ve exchanged text messages with for the past year, according to the document. But T-Mobile stores the same data up to five years. It’s 18 months for Sprint, and seven years for AT&T… That makes Verizon appear to have the most privacy-friendly policy. Except that Verizon is alone in retaining the actual contents of text messages. It allegedly stores the messages for five days, while T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint don’t store them at all.”
Cell-site data is also tracked (remember the kerfuffle over Apple’s retention of location tracking on iPhones?) which means that the whereabouts of your phone (and most likely you) at any given point in time can be tracked via the connections your phone makes to cell towers while traveling about. Now, I wrote a pretty extensive post on how often, and through what devices, we are tracked throughout each day and why the aggregation of all that data poses a violation to one’s expectation of privacy. (Yes, we are a big data analytics company and we aggregate and analyze all kinds of data—the bigger the better—but we believe in being transparent about the uses of that data and addressing potential privacy issues head on.) However, government agencies do not seem to have any concern about this:
“The document release comes two months before the Supreme Court hears a case testing the government’s argument that it may use GPS devices to monitor a suspect’s every movement without a warrant. And the disclosure comes a month ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Electronic Privacy Communications Act, an outdated law that the government often invokes against targets to obtain, without a warrant, the data the Justice Department document describes… ‘I don’t think there there is anything on this list the government would concede requires a warrant,’ said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.”
As an AT&T customer, I was quite surprised that they keep my call and text records for a minimum of five years. Of course if any government agency ever asked for my text record details, they would be out of luck as I am incapable of sending even the most basic texts! (Really. Those who know me never text me because they will get a series of one- or two-letter texts back as I bang away on my cell. Just call me text-challenged.)
The important thing to keep in mind here is if you thought your mobile communications were private, think again. Right now, government agencies do not need a warrant to access that data and are working very hard to ensure that they continue to do so. The upcoming Supreme Court ruling will be a pretty good indicator as to how much data government agencies can access to surveil its citizens without a warrant. For now, I recommend understanding what data your telecom provider retains about you and if you want something, or someone, to remain private, keep it off your phone! Of course, if it’s a location you want kept private, don’t take your phone with you (easier said than done).