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Telcos cough mobe tracking habits

AT&T knows where you were last summer and the summer before

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The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled 381 information requests to establish who is slurping information from phone networks and what they're finding out.

The initial data reveals huge disparities between operators when it comes to how much information is stored and what is made available to the authorities. AT&T, for example, knows everywhere its customers have been since July 2008, and the details of every text message sent in the last five years, not to mention keeping videos of punters in its stores for a couple of months. All for the good of the people obviously.

Other operators clearly have smaller hard drives. Verizon deletes historical locations after a year, but does keep the contents of text messages for a few days. Virgin Mobile hangs onto text message content for three months, though it promises to only reveal them when presented with a search warrant. The other operators keep the details of the messages, but not the messages themselves.

In Europe, our rules on data retention are pretty standard: everything gets stored for six months and is available to the plod on request. That's currently being challenged in Germany, but American operators work under no such mandated obligation. The details over who gets access to what information can be decided on a state-by-state basis, which is why the ACLU has had to ask so many organisations what they're asking for and when.

The fact is that every one of us is voluntarily carrying a tracking device, all the time, as perfectly demonstrated by Malte Spitz who plotted his own movements on an interactive map having extracted them from his network operators. A mobile phone is now the second thing police pull from a corpse, yet it is more valuable than the wallet as it can establish movements prior to death, but concerns over misuse of the information are growing.

The ACLU has shown what operators know, and is in the process of finding out with whom they share that data, but it's up to citizens to decide if they care enough to do anything about it. ®

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