Not so much cellphones as tracking devices: a surveilled day in the life of German politician Malte Spitz


"Green party politician Malte Spitz sued to have German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom hand over six months of his phone data that he then made available to ZEIT ONLINE. We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician, such as Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites, all of which is all freely available on the internet."Interactive map here, article here, in Die Zeit (English). A related New York Times item is here.


  1. This was discussed yesterday over at Slashdot. It turns out:

    1) It’s the cell site’s lat/long that is recorded, not the phone’s.
    2) It happens to be 6 months because that is the length of time that the German government required the information to be kept.
    3) It ends when it does because the German courts ruled the data retention law unconstitutional.

    However, maybe this will be a good thing in showing people what their governments are asking for.

    1. Ping triangulation has been in use since the mid 90’s at least, it is nearly as accurate as GPS say 5-10M.
      If you want to keep your privacy get a one way pager numeric or alphanumeric and leave your phone off of turn the GSM radio off unless needed.

    2. @1 (jpollock):

      no, the spreadsheet you can download from the interactive map site does also contain the direction of the phone. and that’s enough for a lot of detailed information about a moving subject.


  2. i work in forensics. there have been numerous cases where people have been located who were in dire straits (lost kids, people with a medical condition). also loads of times it is very effective to identify obvious BS – i remember a case where someone simply went nuts and called the cops, claiming “three turkish guys had followed him, chasing him through the woods trying to kill him”. there was a massive search for the offenders including helicopters, police and dogs and it turned out later that he was miles away from those woods when he made the call. it also helps a lot in proving that someone were actually close to a crime scene when a serious crime happened. i know of at least 3 cases in the area where i work where *insert swear words* killers have been convicted with the _help_ of such data who are now serving life sentence. the information has to be made available by a judge and even cops cannot just hop online to see where wifey is going when the husband has to work night shift in homicide.
    so i guess as with everything, it is a two sided sword. but one must remember that the legal battle that guy had to fight just reflects the legal battle every cop has to fight to get this data.
    also “remember” (as if) when number plates were introduced they had the very same argument about that – “everyone can see where i am”. take some pics of the parking spots in front of titty bars and you know what i mean.
    so from my perspective – interesting, but not new.
    also, phone companies do not like this at all, it only costs money and recources…..

    1. but one must remember that the legal battle that guy had to fight just reflects the legal battle every cop has to fight to get this data.

      You must be a pathological liar to slip in stupid lies like this where they don’t even matter.

      1. EH, I agree. It’s creepy how effortlessly search and rescue gets this location information in my area. Excellent for saving lives, however the speed in which very detailed location information is obtained indicates they have a direct connection to the telcom where they don’t need to do any requesting.

        1. Agree completely. I’ll be honest, it technically doesn’t really bother me, however in principle I like my freedoms, so this would have to be bundle with my fight.

          I have personal experience phoning emergency services (999- UK), informing them of a crime, then subsequently starting to tell them where I was located. I was interrupted mid sentence by the operator letting mew know she knew exactly where I was. I was on a mobile phone.

          So they clearly need no protocol for this. I imagine it just flashes up on their screen immediately.

          1. Yes, for emergency numebers.

            See, for example.

            IMHO a sensible thing – if there’s realiable data AND a damn good reason to use it, use it.

            After all, the point of Europe-wide 112 is also that anyone can dial the same number on all the member countries and expect help, even if he’s a who had an accident in who has no idea where he is.

            The problem here is data retention – for emergency services, you don’t need to have all the places where the caller was in the last 6 months.

    2. And having cameras in our living rooms would help solve crimes – doesn’t mean we should do it.

      “Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.” Benjamin Franklin.

      If it diminishes your own freedoms then that isn’t policing, it’s a pre-emptive strike on the whole of society.

  3. I put it on normal pace for the first couple weeks then sped it up to crazy fast. It seems he does what most people probably do (who don’t travel for work). Home, commute to work, home. Occasional trip to the other side of town. The dot just kind of vibrates around where he lives/works. It was an interesting graphic but no, I don’t want people to easily know where I am and when. There are too many cases where it can be abused.

    Comment #2 made a good case about how it could be used in life/death situations. But really that’s the only appropriate time.

  4. I meant to say, if you take out his travels, it looks like a regular person who doesn’t travel for work.

  5. If cell phones were really designed to benefit the user, they would take standardized batteries and work with a standard charger.

    It creeps me out how much attention my cell phone needs, like some demented tamagotchi.

    1. Charger, yes; battery, no.

      If batteries were standardised there’d be next to no R&D involved and smartphones would be twice as thick and only stay on for 10 minutes.

      Any product manufacturer has to balance user experience with profit margins. The amount that phone companies spend on creating their power sources and working them into the device (etc.) adds cost, quite often peripherals help cover their target revenue. Like it or not, people need to make money to make great products for you to use :)

      Unless of course you want the perfect user experience and are willing to pay twice as much for it – buying behaviour dictates this is hardly ever the case though; so I assume you don’t :)

  6. sorry, forgot to mention I live in the same country as the guy who did the experiment.
    and I wasn´t talking about the situation where parents call about their handicapped son who needs medication, I was talking about retrospective profiles for months, you know the stuff that fills folders and folders in court.
    at least for my country, i stand behind my “reflects the effort” sentence. i know of one case where a guy was shot mafia style who had recently gotten threats over the phone from another big city. in a “1982-setting” that some would like to project you could have just run a quick profile of the usual suspects from city X and their whereabouts for the time of the crime. and it just wasnt allowed by court.

    also, i might add, this kind of evidence is often wanted by the defence in court, knowing exactly that the (guilty) thug removed his battery and SIM before the crime (“four lions” anybody?) and this is then taken as an argument for his innocence.
    i see your concerns but i just cannot share them from personal work experience, sorry.

  7. Very cool. Thanks.

    Maybe Kraftwerk could use this visualization for video material on their next tour – the last one had some really excellent retro-futurist projections.

  8. My girlfriends mother has Alzheimer’s disease. About two years ago, it became apparent that it was too dangerous to let her live unsupervised.

    She then decided to have the old lady move in with her. She works in the health industry (nurse) and couldn’t bear the thought of having her mother subjected to the treatment these people receive from underpaid and overworked people working these jobs.
    Her Mom is quite a mellow person, she used to be a kindergarten teacher and in the beginning it was relatively easy to manage her disease. It is gradually getting worse, which seems to be the norm with this type of ailment. Soon she started calling all our cats “Jack”, which really is the name of one of them (Chakotay) but after a few months she has become sicker, sometimes restless and now frequently talks to the “lady in the mirror”.
    She still likes to walk around the house, we live in a pretty rural area, but we have to check on her every now and then, because once in a while she’ll just wander off.
    One day last summer, during a period of extreme heat, all of a sudden she was just gone. I swear, this old lady must run like the Flash, as soon as nobody’s looking. It took us half an hour and three people to locate her in a thicket near the forest.
    We got this:
    Don’t know why the reviews are so negative, it has performed flawlessly on our testing runs and, more importantly, the one time we really needed it since.
    Point is, for someone with a medical condition, getting them a dedicated tracker is the answer, using our cell phones to track us is not. It wouldn’t work precisely enough anyway.

  9. That’s how cellphones work – they ping your location so that you’ll have good reception from the closest tower. If you want to be anonymous, turn off your phone and take the battery out of it.

  10. Hmm. I know a guy who works for a company which contracts with cell phone companies. He demonstrated the tech he was working on: type in someone’s phone number, and– bam! there they are. Not just towers, either. Live data. Now, he’s working on it, and hopefully the implementation will have stricter privacy controls, but…

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