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German Green extracts tracking info from mobile operator

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A German Green Party member has successfully extracted the tracking information stored by his mobile operator, and created a map that shows his every movement over a six month period.

The map uses the 35,000 instances when the cellphone owned by Malte Spitz registered with the local cell tower, all of which were stored by T-Mobile in line with EU legislation which requires European network operators to keep this data for at least six months.

That data was then rendered by German newspaper ZEIT Online, which created a map with a timeline, so we can all see in glorious animation where Malte Spitz was at any time between September 2009 and February 2010.

You'd need to be law enforcement to get the same data on anyone else in Europe: unless you're German. The German Constitutional Court decided last year that retaining such information, just in case the subject commits a crime in the future, is unconstitutional. That decision means German operators are storing the data right now, but the German government plans to debate new measures in the next few weeks, and the rest of Europe is still following the letter of the law.

That includes the UK, whose network operators happily retain customers' historical locations for a year, just in case anyone is interested. The UK police aren't allowed to ask for the kind of data drop that Malte Spitz obtained, they are restricted to specific questions such as "was this phone in this location at this time", or "where was this phone as this specific time". The vaguer the question the greater the cost (operators are only supposed to bill for cost recovery, but that varies widely), which is what prevents greater use of the technique.

The operators claim the data is extremely hard to extract, and T-Mobile certainly resisted sharing it with Malte Spitz who took take the operator to court, and only got access to the raw data once the operator had stopped collecting it. That raw data required considerable processing, carried out by ZEIT Online, to reach the animated story now presented.

But despite the complexity it's already standard practice in the UK to snag a phone from a discovered body or arrested suspect, to find out where it's been lately. That data is often picked up from the SIM or handset by the police themselves, avoiding additional cost or paper work (the last cell is often stored to make reconnection faster when the phone is rebooted), but the network operator has a lot more tracking data.

Such tracking works with all mobile phones, and we're all being tracked all the time just in case the police want to know where we were at some point in the future. As long as the process is expensive there seems little to fear; the police will only use it for serious crimes. Still, as networks become more intelligent such data will be cheaper to gather, and Malte Spitz's map might well be something we all have to get used to. ®

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