What data is being collected on you? Some shocking info

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Malte Spitz speaks at TEDGlobal 2012

On August 31, 2009, politician Malte Spitz traveled from Berlin to Erlangen, sending 29 text messages as he traveled. On November 5, 2009, he rocked out to U2 at the Brandenburg Gate. On January 10, 2010, he made 10 outgoing phone calls while on a trip to Dusseldorf, and spent 22 hours, 53 minutes and 57 seconds of the day connected to the internet.

How do we know all this? By looking at a detailed, interactive timeline of Spitz’s life, created using information obtained from his cell phone company, Deutsche Telekom, between September 2009 and February 2010.

In an impassioned talk given at TEDGlobal 2012, Spitz, a member of Germany’s Green Party, recalls his multiple-year quest to receive this data from his phone company. And he explains why he decided to make this shockingly precise log into public information in the newspaper Die Zeit — to sound a warning bell of sorts.

“If you have access to this information, you can see what your society is doing,” says Spitz. “If you have access to this information, you can control your country.”

Curious what information is being collected on you? After the jump, some surprising tidbits.

Your internet search habits are recorded

Journalist Alexis Madrigal sought to find out the extent to which companies collected data about his search habits, for the purpose of targeted advertising, in an article in The Atlantic in February 2012. Madrigal had expected to see about 10 companies following his every click, but was surprised to find that the list totaled up to 105 companies, ranging from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to smaller advertising businesses. [Note: TED uses DoubleClick, an industry-standard ad tracker.]

You can get caught in a “filter bubble”

Online organizer Eli Pariser explains in a fascinating talk at TED2012 that search engines are smart, learning from what you click in the past to determine which results to give you in the future. Pariser warns that this process of data collection may be encasing people in a “filter bubble.” Sounds great, but there is a dangerous unintended consequence: We don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldviews.

Your phone’s address book can be collected

In February 2012, the New York Times reported that mobile apps like Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Yelp, Gowalla and Foodspotting were mining address books in smartphones and, in some cases, storing data on their own computers. In fact, the mobile security company Lookout found that 11 percent of free apps in Apple’s iTunes store collected address book data. At the time, the issue was beginning to be discussed by members of Congress. Meanwhile, Apple stated that apps storing address book data were violating guidelines, and assured users that permission would be asked in future software releases.

The government can request your data

In a talk given at TEDxSanJoseCA, privacy researcher and TED Fellow Christopher Soghoian reveals that telecommunication companies like Google and Facebook, as well as phone companies, have entire departments dedicated to responding to government surveillance requests. And these departments are very busy. Soghoian explains that Sprint set up a website in 2009 allowing law enforcement to log in and track users’ GPS location information. In the first year, the site had been used 8 million times. Meanwhile, Verizon revealed in 2007 that they got 80,000 requests per year for data on users from law enforcement agencies.

Want to protect your privacy? Here, some resources:

  • Collusion. This Firefox tool, which Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs introduced in the TEDTalk “Tracking the Trackers,” records the breadth of companies capturing data about you as you search. Collusion developer Atul Varma spoke to the TED blog in February about the tool, its uses, and what inspired it.
  • Tor Project. This free software protects your privacy by bouncing communications all around the world, via a network run by volunteers.
  • Do Not Track Plus. This app goes beyond browser-based controls and blocks data collection as you search.
  • Lookout. A mobile security app that is available for Android and iPhones.
  • European Digital Rights. Founded in 2002, this organization is a clearinghouse of news when it comes to digital civil rights, including telecommunication data retention.
  • American Civil Liberties Union. This organization is dedicated to protecting rights in the United States, and considers civil liberties in the digital age one of their key issues.

And take a moment to play with Malte Spitz’s data map on Zeit Online, to see what kind of data phone companies regularly collect on users.