What is Phone Metadata? A Surveillance and Marketing Dream

by JT McGee

Ocasionally I get off the topic of finance. This happens most often with politics. Bear with me today. Let’s explore something new.

A German politician sued his cell phone company in 2009 to have his cell phone metadata, like that collected by the NSA and marketers alike, released to him. That information has since been made public, and documented on a German newspaper.

If you’re anything like me, you’re not very tech savvy and have no idea what “metadata” really means. This was eye opening. The news site used a combination of metadata and publicly available information (his Twitter and personal blog posts) to quite literally track him in his travels around Germany.

Over the course of six months you can see everywhere Malte Spitz traveled, when he received a text message and when he used his phone. Presumably, the meta data also includes who he talked to.

Click the image to see metadata in action!

Linking data together

When you press “play” on the site, you’ll see some assumptions about Malte Spitz’s travels. When his phone is in one place, you can assume he’s having lunch, perhaps with someone else he called the day before, which can be ascertained through metadata. When his phone is moving at a lightning pace along specific coordinates, you know he’s on a particular train. Depending on the accuracy of the GPS, one might also be able to know the train car in which he sat.

Google collects information about nearby wifi hotspots when you use its software. Google Maps’ cars map out wifi signals as they drive around the country. Knowing where each wifi hotspot is, Google can then triangulate your precise location. A typical router has a range in the suburbs of less than 50 yards. That’s precision.

Is this worth worrying about?

You be the judge.

It’ll be interesting to see how this affects our lives going forward. Everything we do is public, or has the potential to be public, with a single leak of metadata. Spend too much time at a Dutch “coffee shop,” and that may thwart your chances of running for school board. Go to the same airport as a suspected terrorist using the services of the same taxi cab company? You might have to be watched a little more closely for the next month.

Marketers have their own “metadata”

Ever wonder why Twitter and Facebook buttons are so prevalent around the web? They collect information based on where you go around the internet. Seeing as every site has them – webmasters really don’t have much choice – your electronic “travels” are easily recorded by a few of the web’s biggest brands.

If you come to the blog here, one could assume you’re probably more interested in finance and investing than the average Joe. Sorry for all the annoying refinance banner ads, folks.

It was a few months ago that my dad and I were watching a court case in which formaldehyde was mentioned on numerous occasions. I asked him “what the heck is formaldehyde anyway, and how do these weird people find it?”

His response, “I have no idea. Google it.”

“No, that’s okay, I really don’t want that on my search history.”

“Good thinking,” said my mom.

It’s all too Orwellian to think that we cannot seek out information to calm our own curiosity without having to think what someone else may perceive our intentions to be.

You probably have no reason to worry, but the implications are all too reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite books, 1984. Because “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

krantcents July 1, 2013 at 15:12

There is a lot of information out there and online that linked together is much more revealing than I would like. I have to rely on the company and perhaps the government to not reveal this information publicly. Some of the online information is public such as my name and address. There are a lot of public information stored at various government agencies that are much easier to retrieve thanks to the internet. It is also much easier for thieves,scammers and marketers.


PK July 2, 2013 at 10:15

I watched that infographic yesterday – you stole my idea to feature it, haha (only be 1/2 angry if I do anyway?).

I think you’ll be safe with formaldehyde – sure, it’s poisonous, but you’d be better served with a lot of household cleaners than procuring formaldehyde (unless you are using it to synthesize PETN, then you are on the list, sorry). Most formaldehyde is used in embalming.

That’s one of the major problems with metadata – context. My search history includes gems such as “chloroform” and “pressure cooker bomb”. Looks bad on the surface, sure – but in the context of the Casey Anthony trial and in the aftermath of the Boston Bombing it makes sense (and, obviously I’m not the only one).

Sorry to flag your blog for review with all those keywords!


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