The death of privacy: Why metadata matters

Location, location, location

Location, location, location

How many times in the past week or month have you been using a mobile phone app when you have been asked to share your location? Surely it’s fairly harmless if it improves the accuracy of the information provided to you at a given point?

It’s not like anyone is actually going to record these location tracks and keep them for each individual – or is it?

Have you wondered why so many thrillers and films show single use of mobile phones and the immediate ditching of sim cards and mobiles?

I would argue that your location is key to your privacy and is now routinely stored by a number of large corporates. These claim this is primarily aimed at narrowing advertising offers to you or providing more accurate and relevant data – but this is clearly open to misuse and abuse.

Whilst not wishing to single out Google – they are no worse than many others, but it is one of the biggest data collectors. At least it has the honesty to show you your own location tracks and therefore the data it (and others) has been holding about you – and continues to store.

Most people consider metadata innocuous – just the routine collection of small bits of insignificant data that doesn’t give anything sensitive away – after all much of it isn’t even considered sensitive data under the relevant data protection legislation.

I also find people only start to ‘get’ the scale of data collection and impact on privacy when they see something which is personal to them and potentially shows up something you didn’t know was being held. So – if you have any form of Google account and a mobile phone here is my challenge to you today.

Log on to the public (but subtly low priority) website by clicking this link and seeing where Google has tracked you over recent days and weeks. Each dot is a data point where your location was obtained and saved. My question to contemplate is whether this data should be available for anything longer than the moment for which the app needs it? Why is this historic tracking data necessary?

If you consider programmes such as BBC’s Spooks, tracking history was positioned as cutting edge technology in 2006. In Minority Report the inability of the main protagonist to escape due to location tracking was seen at that time as being within the realms of science fiction. – How things have changed.

I for one would like to see this historic data covered by the same ‘sensitive personal data’ rules as other data. I suspect it won’t be long before someone challenges this ‘tracking’ under the right to privacy under relevant EU, US or other laws.

It seems it is increasingly difficult to remain private. A case can be made for tracking data being a legitimate data source for instances where national security or criminal activity is being detected. However, should your insurance company, mobile phone provider or others have access to your precise location over the past weeks? … Food for thought.

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