600 Billion Data Points Per Day? It’s Time to Restore the Fourth Amendment

by on August 17, 2009 · 17 comments

Jeff Jonas has published an important post: “Your Movements Speak for Themselves: Space-Time Travel Data is Analytic Super-Food!”

More than you probably realize, your mobile device is a digital sensor, creating records of your whereabouts and movements:

Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day. Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not. Got a Blackberry? Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not. If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using a location-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters. Using Wi-Fi? It is accurate below 10 meters.

The process of deploying this data to markedly improve our lives is underway. A friend of Jonas’ says that space-time travel data used to reveal traffic tie-ups shaves two to four hours off his commute each week. When it is put to full use, “the world we live in will fundamentally change. Organizations and citizens alike will operate with substantially more efficiency. There will be less carbon emissions, increased longevity, and fewer deaths.”

This progress is not without cost:


A government not so keen on free speech could use such data to see a crowd converging towards a protest site and respond before the swarm takes form — detected and preempted, this protest never happens. Or worse, it could be used to understand and then undermine any political opponent.

Very few want government to be able to use this data as Jonas describes, and not everybody wants to participate in the information economy quite so robustly. But the public can’t protect itself against what it can’t see. So Jonas invites holders of space-time data to reveal it:

[O]ne way to enlighten the consumer would involve holders of space-time-travel data [permitting] an owner of a mobile device the ability to also see what they can see:

(a) The top 10 places you spend the most time (e.g., 1. a home address, 2. a work address, 3. a secondary work facility address, 4. your kids school address, 5. your gym address, and so on);

(b) The top three most predictable places you will be at a specific time when on the move (e.g., Vegas on the 215 freeway passing the Rainbow exit on Thursdays 6:07 – 6:21pm — 57% of the time);

(c) The first name and first letter of the last name of the top 20 people that you regularly meet-up with (turns out to be wife, kids, best friends, and co-workers – and hopefully in that order!)

(d) The best three predictions of where you will be for more than one hour (in one place) over the next month, not counting home or work.

Google’s Android and Latitude products are candidates to take the lead, he says, and I agree. Google collectively understands both openness and privacy, and it’s nimble enough still to execute something like this. Other mobile providers would be forced to follow this innovation.

What should we do to reap the benefits while minimizing the costs? The starting point is you: It is your responsibility to deal with your mobile provider as an adult. Have you read your contract? Have you asked them whether they collect this data, how long they keep it, whether they share it, and under what terms?

Think about how you can obscure yourself. Put your phone in airplane mode when you are going someplace unusual – or someplace usual. (You might find that taking a break from being connected opens new vistas in front of your eyes.) Trade phones with others from time to time. There are probably hacks on mobile phone system that could allow people to protect themselves to some degree.

Privacy self-help is important, but obviously it can be costly. And you shouldn’t have to obscure yourself from your mobile communications provider, giving up the benefits of connected living, to maintain your privacy from government.

The emergence of space-time travel data begs for restoration of Fourth Amendment protections in communications data. In my American University Law Review article, “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine,” I described the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment as to modern communications.

The “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine that arose out of the Supreme Court’s 1967 Katz decision is wrong—it isn’t even founded in the majority holding of the case. The “third-party doctrine,” following Katz in a pair of early 1970s Bank Secrecy Act cases, denies individuals Fourth Amendment claims on information held by service providers. Smith v. Maryland brought it home to communications in 1979, holding that people do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the telephone numbers they dial. (Nevermind that they actually have privacy—the doctrine trumps it.)

Concluding, apropos of Jonas’ post, I wrote:

These holdings were never right, but they grow more wrong with each step forward in modern, connected living. Incredibly deep reservoirs of information are constantly collected by third-party service providers today.

Cellular telephone networks pinpoint customers’ locations throughout the day through the movement of their phones. Internet service providers maintain copies of huge swaths of the information that crosses their networks, tied to customer identifiers. Search engines maintain logs of searches that can be correlated to specific computers and usually the individuals that use them. Payment systems record each instance of commerce, and the time and place it occurred.

The totality of these records are very, very revealing of people’s lives. They are a window onto each individual’s spiritual nature, feelings, and intellect. They reflect each American’s beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and sensations. They ought to be protected, as they are the modern iteration of our “papers and effects.”

  • andrew_feinberg

    What about the car you drive? I purposefully have avoided driving a car with OnStar built in. Why? I don't want a GPS and a built in microphone that can be remotely activated and/or monitored without my knowledge. I can take the battery out of my BlackBerry (but not if I had an iPhone — food for thought) but I can't exactly rip apart my car's electrical system.

    It's great that OnStar can call 911 for you and send an ambulance and rescue squad to cut you out if your airbag goes off following a catastrophic collision. But it's downright frightening that the sort of tracking and remote monitoring that OnStar touts as a feature is being marketed to Americans without so much as an eyebrow being raised as to the frightening aspects of a tracking device and microphone built into your car.

    I'll probably drive “used” cars sans built in navigation as long as I can find them. Heck, eventually it'll make me a collector of “classics!”

  • Ryan Radia

    Most GPS-based automobile navigation systems aren't bidirectional, as I understand them, unlike OnStar. So I think you'd be fine with most cars…

  • http://www.tirangaagarbatti.com Tiranga

    Very good article, nice piece of information. Thank you for sharing.

  • not me

    Actually, Jeff Jonas is just making up some of those facts. The *capability* of a network to calculate geolocation for a given event is very different from whether that network actually does generate and retain a record of that information. And the telcos aren't generating that information, contrary to what Jonas implies.

    Also, his figures — 60m precision for trilateration, and 10-30m for GPS — clearly come from some alternate universe. Anyone who doubts that needs to check the actual E-911 Phase II requirements (as set out in the federal regs: try 100m-300m for trilateration), and then do some casual Googling to see which carriers have been fined (or otherwise chastised) by the FCC for failing to meet even those standards.

  • BayesianO

    I've worked in the field of geolocation for the past 5 years, including building and deloying the world's first crowd -sourced geolocation data network used to derive real-time nationwide traffic condition information and predicting it ahead, including employing anonymized geo-location data from cell phones.

    The typical positioning accuracies Jeff Jonas mentions in his article are commonly achieved in telco positioning systems, although environmental constraints can get in the way of accurate positioning. For example it is not uncommon to achieve a “<1 metre precision” GPS-based geolocation point, but in a location in which multipath and limited horizon effects can create an implied position 100's of metres from a users true location. However such environmental constraints are commonly static or slowly varying, and technologies now exist to allow such positioning errors to be calibrated out of geolocation systems by carriers.

    Some references:

    Paper on database-base calibration of cellular positioning
    http://www.ent.mrt.ac.lk/dialog/documents/IET_s

    TruePosition U-TDOA (non-GPS based cellular positioning technology) delivers ~50m spatial resolution
    http://www.trueposition.com/c/document_library/

    Also, not that if you can determine in terms of “address” where someone is, even in the presence of imprecise geolocation information, then you can make the location assignment of an individual exact, even in the presence of inaccurate gelocation information.

    Patent-pending on croud-sourced location calibration based on bayesian clustering of imprecise labelled location determinations:
    http://appft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1

    Sprint provides a positioning web service to their application providers using their A-GPS positioning network:
    http://www.nextel.com/assets/pdfs/en/solutions/
    http://www.nextel.com/en/solutions/gps/mobile_l

  • jojoalien

    AT&T provides my, dsl (which is actually a wireless router), dish network, my home phone and my iPhone. I have had the unfortunate experience of being under constant survaliance, in ways you would not believe through these devices, they can turn your phone into a room listening device, obviously track your whereabout, control content on your tv, completley control your computer, and you own ability to set access and admin settings, add software, stop e mail…I could go on and on.. at first I found it facinating and engaged in a battle of tech wits, I'd figure out how they were doing it, and tell then how to do it better. They know I know they are watching me because the technology that they are using is a little over the heads of those who are using it. The killer was when I caught some US Gov security agency accessing my tv. They actually had to put a screen in (by interlacing it..long story) but I saw it accidentally as I paused and stepped back to see something I missed. I would never had noticed it otherwise. Since then it's just gotten crazier. I was foolish and said something over the phone that caught someone's attention, and now my life is so controlled it blows my mind! I believe we are on the verge of an “Orwellian Nightmare” as far as privacy is concerned. I did nothing wrong, so I guess I just have to wait it out, but it is creepy.

  • jojoalien

    You should see how my comments showed up on my mac, It's a mess. My Mac is really no longer my Mac – it is now apparently running windows, and using my printer as another mounted volume. It took me a long time to figure that one out.

  • jojoalien

    AT&T provides my, dsl (which is actually a wireless router), dish network, my home phone and my iPhone. I have had the unfortunate experience of being under constant survaliance, in ways you would not believe through these devices, they can turn your phone into a room listening device, obviously track your whereabout, control content on your tv, completley control your computer, and you own ability to set access and admin settings, add software, stop e mail…I could go on and on.. at first I found it facinating and engaged in a battle of tech wits, I'd figure out how they were doing it, and tell then how to do it better. They know I know they are watching me because the technology that they are using is a little over the heads of those who are using it. The killer was when I caught some US Gov security agency accessing my tv. They actually had to put a screen in (by interlacing it..long story) but I saw it accidentally as I paused and stepped back to see something I missed. I would never had noticed it otherwise. Since then it's just gotten crazier. I was foolish and said something over the phone that caught someone's attention, and now my life is so controlled it blows my mind! I believe we are on the verge of an “Orwellian Nightmare” as far as privacy is concerned. I did nothing wrong, so I guess I just have to wait it out, but it is creepy.

  • jojoalien

    You should see how my comments showed up on my mac, It's a mess. My Mac is really no longer my Mac – it is now apparently running windows, and using my printer as another mounted volume. It took me a long time to figure that one out.

  • k2seo

    Its really gr8, very nice article…

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