Video: Your Phone Company is Watching

The mobile phone you carry in your pocket has revolutionized daily life, but it’s also made possible a surveillance society previously only dreamed of by the likes of the Stasi, KGB, and NSA.  

Malte Spitz, a German Green Party politician, wanted to know what his carrier, T-Mobile, collected on him, and filed suit to get the data. After a settlement, he got a CD of the data the company retained, and in a Ted Global talk on June 27, he brought down the house, calling for others to fight for their right to self-determination in the digital age.

Although there is no mandatory data retention law in the U.S., none of the major carriers tell the public how long they store the data, nor do they make it possible for a citizen to request the data stored about himself or herself.

Luckily, the ACLU cleverly got this information, which seems to be freely shared with the Justice Department, by sending government sunshine requests to state and local police that the feds shared information with.

The answers should scare you.

Here is Mark speaking out...

Transcript of the video

Hi. This is my mobile phone. A mobile phone can change your life, and a mobile phone gives you individual freedom. With a mobile phone, you can shoot a crime against humanity in Syria. With a mobile phone, you can tweet a message and start a protest in Egypt. And with a mobile phone, you can record a song, load it up to SoundCloud and become famous. All this is possible with your mobile phone.

I'm a child of 1984, and I live in the city of Berlin. Let's go back to that time, to this city. Here you can see how hundreds of thousands of people stood up and protested for change. This is autumn 1989, and imagine that all those people standing up and protesting for change had a mobile phone in their pocket.

Who in the room has a mobile phone with you? Hold it up. Hold your phones up, hold your phones up! Hold it up. An Android, a Blackberry, wow. That's a lot. Almost everybody today has a mobile phone.

But today I will talk about me and my mobile phone, and how it changed my life. And I will talk about this. These are 35,830 lines of information. Raw data. And why are these informations there? Because in the summer of 2006, the E.U. Commission tabled a directive.

This directive [is] called Data Retention Directive. This directive says that each phone company in Europe, each Internet service company all over Europe, has to store a wide range of information about the users. Who calls whom? Who sends whom an email? Who sends whom a text message? And if you use your mobile phone, where you are. All this information is stored for at least six months, up to two years by your phone company or your Internet service provider.

And all over Europe, people stood up and said, "We don't want this." They said, we don't want this data retention. We want self-determination in the digital age, and we don't want that phone companies and Internet companies have to store all this information about us. They were lawyers, journalists, priests, they all said: "We don't want this."

And here you can see, like 10 thousands of people went out on the streets of Berlin and said, "Freedom, not fear." And some even said, this would be Stasi 2.0. Stasi was the secret police in East Germany.

And I also ask myself, does it really work? Can they really store all this information about us? Every time I use my mobile phone? So I asked my phone company, Deutsche Telekom, which was at that time the largest phone company in Germany, and I asked them, please, send me all the information you have stored about me. And I asked them once, and I asked them again, and I got no real answer. It was only blah blah answers.

But then I said, I want to have this information, because this is my life you are protocoling. So I decided to start a lawsuit against them, because I wanted to have this information. But Deutsche Telekom said, no, we will not give you this information. So at the end, I had a settlement with them. I'll put down the lawsuit and they will send me all the information I ask for. Because in the mean time, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the implementation of this E.U. directive into German law was unconstitutional.

So I got this ugly brown envelope with a C.D. inside. And on the C.D., this was on. Thirty-five thousand eight hundred thirty lines of information. At first I saw it, and I said, okay, it's a huge file. Okay. But then after a while I realized, this is my life. This is six months of my life, into this file.

So I was a little bit skeptical, what should I do with it? Because you can see where I am, where I sleep at night, what I am doing. But then I said, I want to go out with this information. I want to make them public. Because I want to show the people what does data retention mean.

So together with Zeit Online and Open Data City, I did this. This is a visualization of six months of my life. You can zoom in and zoom out, you can wind back and fast forward. You can see every step I take. And you can even see how I go from Frankfurt by train to Cologne, and how often I call in between.

All this is possible with this information. That's a little bit scary. But it is not only about me. It's about all of us. First, it's only like, I call my wife and she calls me, and we talk to each other a couple of times. And then there are some friends calling me, and they call each other. And after a while you are calling you, and you are calling you, and you have this great communication network.

But you can see how your people are communicating with each other, what times they call each other, when they go to bed. You can see all of this. You can see the hubs, like who are the leaders in the group. If you have access to this information, you can see what your society is doing. If you have access to this information, you can control your society.

This is a blueprint for countries like China and Iran. This is a blueprint how to survey your society, because you know who talks to whom, who sends whom an email, all this is possible if you have access to this information. And this information is stored for at least six months in Europe, up to two years.

Like I said at the beginning, imagine that all those people on the streets of Berlin in autumn of 1989 had a mobile phone in their pocket. And the Stasi would have known who took part at this protest, and if the Stasi would have known who are the leaders behind it, this may never have happened. The fall of the Berlin Wall would maybe not [have been] there. And in the aftermath, also not the fall of the Iron Curtain. Because today, state agencies and companies want to store as much information as they can get about us, online and offline. They want to have the possibility to track our lives, and they want to store them for all time.

But self-determination and living in the digital age is no contradiction. But you have to fight for your self-determination today. You have to fight for it every day. So, when you go home, tell your friends that privacy is a value of the 21st century, and it's not outdated. When you go home, tell your representative only because companies and state agencies have the possibility to store certain information, they don't have to do it. And if you don't believe me, ask your phone company what information they store about you.

So, in the future, every time you use your mobile phone, let it be a reminder to you that you have to fight for self-determination in the digital age. Thank you.




What is TED

This video is from the TED Global 2012 conference. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate "ideas worth spreading.". Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, educator Salman Khan, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel Prize winners.



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