Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Your personal information is for sale - Mobile Phone Location edition

The Guardian has an interesting story by Ben Goldacre entitled"How I stalked my girlfriend":
For the past week I've been tracking my girlfriend through her mobile phone. I can see exactly where she is, at any time of day or night, within 150 yards, as long as her phone is on. It has been very interesting to find out about her day. Now I'm going to tell you how I did it.


First I had to get hold of her phone. It wasn't difficult. We live together and she has no reason not to trust me, so she often leaves it lying around. And, after all, I only needed it for five minutes.

I unplugged her phone and took it upstairs to register it on a website I had been told about. It looks as if the service is mainly for tracking stock and staff movements: the Guardian, rather sensibly, doesn't want me to tell you any more than that. I ticked the website's terms and conditions without reading them, put in my debit card details, and bought 25 GSM Credits for £5 plus vat.

Almost immediately, my girlfriend's phone vibrated with a new text message. "Ben Goldacre has requested to add you to their Buddy List! To accept, simply reply to this message with 'LOCATE'". I sent the requested reply. The phone vibrated again. A second text arrived: "WARNING: [this service] allows other people to know where you are. For your own safety make sure that you know who is locating you." I deleted both these text messages.

On the website, I see the familiar number in my list of "GSM devices" and I click "locate". A map appears of the area in which we live, with a person-shaped blob in the middle, roughly 100 yards from our home. The phone doesn't go off at all. There is no trace of what I'm doing on her phone. I can't quite believe my eyes: I knew that the police could do this, and telecommunications companies, but not any old random person with five minutes access to someone else's phone. I can't find anything in her mobile that could possibly let her know that I'm checking her location. As devious systems go, it's foolproof. I set up the website to track her at regular intervals, take a snapshot of her whereabouts automatically, every half hour, and plot her path on the map, so that I can view it at my leisure. It felt, I have to say, exceedingly wrong.


Your mobile phone company could make money from selling information about your location to the companies that offer this service. If you have any reason to suspect that your phone might have been out of your sight, even for five minutes, and there is anyone who might want to track you: call your phone company and ask it to find out if there is a trace on your phone. Anybody could be watching you. It could be me.
This particular service isn't available in Ireland just yet. But other mobile phone location services are. use similar technology to advertise houses based on their proximity to your mobile phone. 02 sell companies the ability to monitor the movements of their employees via their mobiles. And of course our Department of Justice has ensured that the movements of every mobile phone owner are tracked and stored for three years. It's time to make sure that adequate safeguards are put in place to control mobile phone location data - and by that I mean independent monitoring with teeth, not the ineffective and unaccountable internal administrative practices of mobile phone operators.


  1. This service is disgracefully used by poorly regulated services and possibly frequently sold to criminals and third parties for harassment and invasion of peoples privacy for subversive purposes.

    There should be laws banning the use of this technology and the leaking of public/private information for monetary gain by private individuals and companies and these tools should only be used by law enforcement service with severe penalties to those who corruptly sell it.

    Where is the minister for justice?.....I hope he doesnt let these people get their hands on his phone!!

  2. aside from the huge personal freedom and privacy issue

    it could prove useful to track your own phone as in you set up an account to track your own phone

    then say some scumbag steals your phone you provide tracking info to gardai scumbag gets arrested

    you could even wire a phone into your car for similar results

    however the dark side of this technology is enormous

    at its far extreme why plant tracking devices in a countries population when you can get people to buy them cos they're so dam convenient, big brother or what

    also ask yourself how many people do you know that don't own a mobile phone