Location breadcrumbs left by mobile phones, along with other communication traffic data, are kept as part of a mass surveillance operation. They are collected by the mobile networks, retained for a year, and handed over to the police and other bodies on request. This is such an accepted fact of life that lack of traffic data has become suspicious. As shown in Voluntary electronic tagging, not carrying a mobile phone was considered a ground for arrest in Germany in 2007 and in France in 2008.
The mobile networks want to share this trove of personal data with more than just the police, for both security and commercial applications. Lee Epting, Director of Content Services at Vodafone, told the audience of the RSA keynote The Future of Mobile (the following extract starts at 16'26" in the mp3) how we'll be lulled into abandoning our right to privacy:
In terms of people tracking, over the next ten years, we expect growing acceptance by consumers that you can be tracked by your mobile, and increased adoption of ticketless transport systems surveillance, and financially successful location based services, and the ability to locate friends and family, for example. Moving forward, as mobile phones are used to enable ticketless travel by charging the owner when they get on or off the public transport networks, the use of the location of a personal mobile device as a reliable surrogate, if you will, for the individual is stimulating lots of new applications in areas such as healthcare, financial payment among many others. However it's not all just about mobiles, the EU is mandating the incorporation of this technology in every new car from 2012, and soon the whole vehicle fleet and hence drivers will be tracked. Not only does this allow for better emergency assistance but it also acts as a catalyst for the introduction of pervasive road pricing and the like without the need any further for tollbooths.
I want to make a comment here. Although this seems a bit daunting, it does to me as well, but it is somewhat our reality. And there are real concerns around the potential impact this will have on our right to privacy, the benefits of information sharing are still very considerable. And as we become more comfortable with sharing information, and our search histories and our locations, more relevant information will be provided more quickly and the power of innovation will actually start to shift into the public domain. And I think this is one of the key things we want to consider because just talking about the fact that we're monitored and people know where we are, what we've done is daunting, but when you consider the power when things start to shift, it could be quite a big shift. Clearly this technology has to be managed sensitively and wisely as it's rolled out more widely, but looking into 2020 we can see a world where whether we want it or not and whether we seek to avoid it or not, we're no longer just tracked by the border control when we leave or enter/exit a country but we are constantly tracked for both security and commercial applications.
If that's not the world you want, support organisations which call for an end to compulsory telecommunications data retention.
Bootnote: the German working group on data retention AK Vorrat published, in English, a FAQ explaining the current blanket data retention policy on the entire EU population's communications and the alternative, proposed by civil society, of expedited preservation and targeted collection of traffic data. See also its information page.
Terri Dowty from Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) and Dr Helen Wallace from GeneWatch UK, two exceptional campaigners on civil liberties, will be talking about children's databases and the National DNA Database (NDNAD) at a free event organised by No2ID this Monday 22nd November, 7pm in the Bertrand Russell Room, Conway Hall (25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL).
To coincide with her appearance in the film Erasing David, Terri Dowty published earlier this year a Privacy guide for parents (pdf) detailing the information collected about children from the moment they are born. Even though this document does not yet reflect the latest successes of ARCH's campaigns such as the end of ContactPoint in August or the recent promise that schools will no longer take children’s fingerprints without consent, it's worth browsing through it to fully realise the extent of data collection going on. To ensure its continued future, ARCH is building a new network of supporters. To support ARCH's work on children's civil liberties and data protection rights, join as a Supporter on its recently revamped website.
GeneWatch UK is calling everyone to write to or visit his or her MP to ask him or her to support the forthcoming Freedom Bill, which will introduce new legislation on DNA and to make sure it includes all the necessary safeguards. The coalition government promises that this bill will change the rules for DNA retention by following the Scottish approach. I explained what this means in Adopting the Scottish approach to DNA retention (all those arrested and not charged, and most of those charged but not convicted, would not have their DNA retained anymore).
The necessary safeguards GeneWatch is demanding are:
- The destruction of all DNA samples once the computerised DNA profiles needed for identification purposes have been obtained from them;
- The deletion of all police computer records and photographs when DNA and fingerprint records are deleted;
- Time limits on the retention of records from people given cautions or convictions for minor offences;
- Independent oversight of the removal of records;
- Stricter controls on how stored DNA records and samples can be used.
There's a wide consensus for the destruction of the DNA samples and such a measure could be effected immediately; see Interim situation to continue a bit longer for DNA retention for details of this and some of the options for change.
The second point is important not just as a future necessary safeguard but also as a useful reminder for those exceptional individuals who succeed in reclaiming their DNA using the current exceptional case procedure. Usually fingerprints (and palm and other prints) are destroyed at the same time as DNA samples and profile when a chief constable eventually agrees to such a request. However, the police have been lobbying to retain the associated Police National Computer (PNC) record; it is essential that this record is deleted as the PNC can be accessed by many organisations and having a PNC record may affect one's job and visa prospects among other risks. The last item, photographs, is in the experience of many innocents surprisingly difficult to get back or destroyed. Only this month a correspondent who after successfully reclaiming his DNA and subsequently specifically querying whether the police was still holding on to some pictures of him was told 'we still hold details of the incident, including photos of you, on some of our systems'. In my case the police relented to return the photographs it took of me and at my flat only after they agreed to settle, two years after they destroyed my DNA and prints. Innocents, on the occasions that they do succeed in getting off the National DNA Database, should not have to be so thorough and have to make multiple formal requests for the destruction of each and every piece of personal information that the police may have collected on them.
Time limits on the retention of DNA for minor offences and for cautions is necessary to ensure rehabilitation, otherwise it is in essence a life sentence which can affect jobs and visas prospects. The longer DNA samples are stored and profiles held, the more they are at risk of being lost or unlawfully accessed; I have compiled a list of those documented instances I could find at DNA database unauthorised use and data loss, and incorrect storing of DNA samples. Independent oversight is an obvious necessity. I suggest you discuss with your MP how it can be effective as well as independent. As for GeneWatch's demand for stricter controls on the use of DNA samples and profiles, consider that today –if you have been arrested for one of the many recordable offences– research can be done on your DNA profile or sample without needing your consent. You won't even be informed that your DNA information was used.
A briefing document, The DNA Database: Contacting your MP (pdf), supporting these demands and offering further points of information to have an informed discussion with your MP is published on GeneWatch's website. Read it and contact your MP! (If your DNA is already on the National DNA Database, for help to get off, check out the Reclaim Your DNA website.)