The recent revelation that iPhones store personal geolocational data shouldn’t really surprise anyone, but Big Brother Watch has discovered some evidence of the potential uses of this information. Firstly, we hear the story of Green Party politician Malte Spitz in Germany, who sued his network provider Deutsche Telekom to force them to hand over six months of his phone data. He then passed this on to Zeit Online, a German website, who combined the geolocational data with readily available information from online resources such as Twitter, blog entries and websites.
What they have created with this data looks like something out of the film Enemy Of The State. The video shows where Mr Spitz was at all times, how many phone calls he made and received, how many text messages he sent, how long he spent on the internet, and what he was doing at those locations. They opt not to show the content of his text messages, but obviously they are also contained within the data his network possessed. The government can request this data for a variety of security-based reasons, and any hacker who can bypass the online security of mobile networks can easily access it. Is the usefulness of Google Maps worth wilfully disclosing this information?
Meanwhile, in Michigan, USA, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has uncovered the use of data extraction devices by police. Designed by an Israeli company called Cellebrite, it can extract location history, text messages, call history, photos, videos and user passwords, even after deletion, from over 3,000 types of mobile phones. The Michigan State Police have been using it to collect information from the mobiles of people they question for traffic violations. They were forced to reveal the purchase of these devices due to a Freedom of Information request from the ACLU, but they have claimed that due to the costs of retrieving and assembling the relevant documents, the ACLU must pay $272,340 before they disclose any information about them, and $544,680 to reveal how all five of the devices are being used.
Mark Fancher, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said:
“Transparency and government accountability are the bedrocks of our democracy. Through these many requests for information we have tried to establish whether these devices are being used legally. It's telling that Michigan State Police would rather play this stalling game than respect the public's right to know.
"We should not have to go on expensive fishing expeditions in order to discover whether police are violating the rights of residents they have resolved to protect and serve.”
There is no legitimate reason for a police force to be secretly collecting the data from mobile phones. This would not be permissible as evidence in court, so who sanctioned their purchase, and what use did they have in mind? Big Brother Watch is extremely concerned that these devices will turn up in the UK. When the media is full of stories relating to phone hacking, this represents a dangerous incursion into private information. We will be campaigning to have these devices pre-emptively banned in the UK. No police force should have unauthorised access to the personal phone data of innocent people.