Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How your phone tracks your every move

How your phone tracks your every move

 In the digital age, how much of your life is actually private? To find out, ABC reporter Will Ockenden got access to his metadata. This is what the data looks like.

As we move through the modern world many of our actions leave behind an electronic footprint; who collects that data and what they do with it have become critical questions for modern society.

Australia's new data retention laws mean phone and internet companies have to save this information for two years: that's every time you call someone, where you call them from, which cell tower your phone pings every time it connects to the internet, and more.

On a mission to find out what that data might reveal, ABC reporter Will Ockenden took a 'surveillance selfie': he got access to his own metadata, and now for the first time you can see what an individual Australian's metadata actually looks like.

Tracking device

Critics say Australia's data retention scheme is mass surveillance, and metadata is used to track where people go. The Attorney-General's Department says that's a myth, but what do you think?

This map shows a day-by-day rundown of every time Will's phone communicated with a tower for an outgoing call, a text message or an internet connection.

The markers are the locations of the cell towers his phone contacted; the lines between them show direction of travel (though not his route) based on the time of the connections.

Use the slider to explore Will's daily routine.

How often does your phone spy on you?

Will's metadata showed that his approximate location and other information had been captured:
  • 12,100 times in six months
  • 67 times a day
  • 3 times an hour

In the debate over mandatory data retention, the Federal Government and security agencies repeatedly said there was nothing to worry about.

"We're talking here about metadata; we're not talking here about the content of communications," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in February. "It's just the data that the system generates."

But metadata still says a lot about your day-to-day life.

The dataset Will Ockenden received contained a year's worth of outgoing call and SMS records, and six months of his 'data sessions', which are the records kept every time his phone connected to the internet over the mobile network.

Um, what's metadata again?

Let's face it: metadata can be hard to explain or understand. Here's an explanation in 3 points:
  • Start by thinking about making a mobile phone call.
  • What you say on the phone is the content. This is not metadata.
  • The time of your call, who you called, how long the call lasted and which cell tower your phone contacted are all logged, traditionally for billing purposes. That information is metadata.
  • Find out more.

All in all, this simple data request returned 13,000 individual records. There were 1,500 outgoing phone calls and SMSes but the vast majority - 11,200 records – were data sessions, complete with the time and date his phone connected to the mobile network and which cell tower it connected to.

In other words, by carrying a smartphone Will was in effect carrying a tracking device that logged roughly where he was every 20 minutes of every day, on average.

Government departments, police and security agencies have access to all the data Will received about himself - and more - without the need for a warrant.

Pattern recognition

Being able to follow someone's daily movements is one thing but it's once we start to collate and visualise the data that patterns can start to emerge.

These heatmaps show how often Will's phone communicated with different cell towers, and uses the patterns of those pings to make a rough guess at the journeys he made between them all. The greater the concentration on the heatmap the more often Will was in the area.

Filter the heatmaps to see what patterns emerge when you view different slices of time in Will's life.
If you explore the heatmaps above, you can get an intimate portrait of aspects of Will's life.

We are going to be using these same tools to explore Will's metadata and will report on our conclusions in coming days. You can do the same: see if you can figure out the answers to questions such as:
  • where Will lives;
  • how he gets to and from work every day;
  • when he leaves Sydney;
  • where he goes, and for how long.

The social network

Metadata doesn't just show information about an individual, it is also about connections to other people and organisations.

It was a simple task to filter Will's data in order to find his top 10 contacts: the people he communicates with most often.

Choose a contact to see how and when Will communicated with them.

To preserve their privacy, and Will's relationships, we've concealed his contacts' identities.

But even so there are some patterns at play here. See if you can work them out - we'll be quizzing you on this later in the week.

What does it show?

We're going to use these tools to delve deeper into Will's data and report back on what we discover.
More than 300 ABC audience members have also provided their own analysis of Will's metadata, via a form we published alongside this story.

We are still sorting through your submissions and will report back soon on what you got right and wrong about Will's life.

(Submissions have now closed.)

What's in the data?

The dataset Will Ockenden received from Telstra included:
  • Who he called and texted (in our dataset, exact phone numbers have been hidden and replaced by unique identifying codes).
  • How long each phone call lasted.
  • The time of the communication.
  • The location of the cell tower contacted when outgoing calls were initiated.
  • The location of the cell tower contacted for SMS and internet connections.
Other data that is to be kept by telcos and internet providers under data retention laws – but which is not included in the dataset released to Will – includes but is not limited to:
  • Details of incoming phone calls.
  • The time, date, size and recipients of emails sent using your ISP's email service (i.e. not via webmail services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail).
  • The file type and size of any attachments sent or received with emails, when using your ISP's email service.
  • Details about internet usage including how much bandwidth the internet service provides.
Credits 16 Aug 2015


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