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.