Your cellphone is a tracking device collecting a lot more information about you than you may think, says ProPublica investigative reporter Peter Maass.
"They are collecting where we are — not just at one particular moment in the day, but at virtually every moment of the day," Maass tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "They are also taking note of what we are buying, how we're purchasing it, how often we're purchasing it."
Maass says cellphone companies collect some of this information — such as location data — to monitor patterns of phone use and ensure that their networks operate properly. But while some cellphone providers eventually delete this data, other providers retain it for essentially "indefinite periods of time," he says.
And because there aren't any federal laws on how long wireless providers can retain information, wireless providers may "do as they wish," Maass says.
He calls the information "potentially a gold mine of data-mining information."
"When you know where somebody is, what they're doing, how long you're there for — that could be commercially useful, if not for the cellphone company, at least to other third-party companies who have things to sell," Maass says.
Cell data is also very useful to law enforcement during the course of an investigation and, Maass says, not difficult to access. A report released in July by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., revealed that wireless carriers responded to more than 1.3 million cell data requests from law enforcement in 2011.
"Back in the day with landlines, [there] were pretty clear, pretty strict laws about what the police could access, when it could access it, and what sort of judicial oversight was required," he says. "These days, because cellphone technology in particular and the data it produces is relatively new and so abundant, the law hasn't really kept up with it, so law enforcement is really not faced with as many limits as it used to be."
Maass says regulators at the Federal Trade Commission do not have as much authority or impact as European regulators do — not because they don't wish to uncover privacy violations, but because of a lack of relevant, up-to-date laws and inadequate funding.
While people can reduce the amount of cellphone tracking by not using location applications and turning off their cellphones, Maass says, there is only one way to prevent a cellphone from collecting information: "The answer, pretty much, is don't use a cellphone at all."
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