The National Security Agency’s collection of data regarding telephone conversations is a far greater threat to privacy than many of us believe. A lawsuit filed by a German politician proves just how much you can learn about a person’s life by monitoring and tracking their phone usage.
Malte Spitz, a member of Germany’s Green Party, sued his cellphone company, T-Mobile, in 2010 in an attempt to determine how much the carrier knew about him. Malte won the suit and received a CD that showed how easy it is to track a person via their phone.
35,890 Records About His Movement
When he won his lawsuit, Spitz received a CD containing 35,830 records, each documenting his movements. Spitz learned that T-Mobile could pinpoint exactly where he was at a given time. By combining GPS with the data, Spitz could track his own movements around Germany.
T-Mobile knew exactly how many telephone calls Spitz received in a day, how many calls he made, how many Twitter messages he sent out, and how many he received. By examining the data, T-Mobile could figure out that Spitz was attending a political demonstration on Sept. 5, 2009. Spitz shared the data with the German magazine ZEIT, which had an easy time creating a simple interative graphic that tracked Spitz’s movements based on the metadata. The graphic, of which you can see a still of below, highlights what the NSA and mobile phone companies can find out about you from phone records alone (click here for the interactive version):
Those with access to such data could determine what church you go to, what people you visit, and where you shop. It could be used to make criminal cases or to orchestrate surveillance of a person.
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Spitz’s lawsuit proves that telecom providers gather a vast amount of metadata about their customers. This is the kind of data that Edward Snowden revealed the NSA collects about Americans and shares with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, Spitz compared such data collection efforts to the work of the Nazi secret police or Gestapo and the Communist East German police or Stasi. He noted that Wolfgang Schauble, a former German Interior Minister (the nation’s chief law enforcement official), who lobbied for a data retention law to enable government to collect such data, was nicknamed Stasi 2.0 by German civil rights activists.
It appears that everybody who uses a mobile device is being constantly tracked by large companies like T-Mobile and Google. Spitz has shown us that these companies now possess tracking capabilities that the Gestapo and Stasi only dreamed of. Those capabilities are now being shared with agencies like the NSA and FBI.
We need to rein in such companies and such agencies now before privacy becomes a thing of the past. Malte Spitz is to be congratulated for exposing this metadata tracking; our media is to be condemned for ignoring Spitz’s revelations until Snowden’s revelations.