My mobile phone knows more about me than my family

Grab your mobile phone or tablet. I want you to dig under the bonnet and have a look at what data your device is recording about your daily activities.

If you have an iPhone or iPad select Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Frequent Locations.

If you have an Android device that uses Google services you can access your personal location data via the web.


The image above shows my movements in London on Tuesday last week. There’s a video replay option in which a red marker retraces my steps during the day. It clearly shows the places where I’ve been and  how long I spent at each location.

In both cases the services are opt-in. You can turn them on and off via the settings on your device.

Your phone knows your every move. It almost certainly knows your whereabouts better than your partner or family.

Edward Snowden, the security-contractor-turned-leaker, revealed last year that in some circumstances metadata from foreign citizens is being recorded by the US National Security Archive (NSA).

In a speech last month President Obama committed to tighten up the way that the NSA operates. He said that in future the US will only record information from the phones of friends and allies when there is a compelling national-security reason to do so.

Should we be concerned? Consumers trade the utility of personal networks with the disclosure of personal data every day.

Proponents of social media happily log their location on social networks such as Facebook and FourSquare via mobile devices.

This contributes to an individual’s social graph and provides networks with location information that can be used as the basis of advertising.

A recent project at the University of Birmingham (PDF)  showed that it is possible to predict the location of an individual at a point in the future based on data from their mobile phone.

The algorithm, developed by Mirco Musolesi, Manlio Domenico, and Antonio Lima, combines location-based tracking with data from the people in your phone book.

It won first prize in Nokia’s 2012 Mobile Data Challenge to find interesting applications for the interpretation of mobile data.

The research team claims that data from your own phone can be used to predict your location in the next 24 hours to within about a kilometre. Add data from two or three friends and it’s possible to get to within 20m.

Human beings are social animals and our interaction with friends is predictable.

As you’ve seen if you interrogated your own device, this data is already being captured by your mobile phone and, if you allow it, is being shared with social networks such as Facebook and FourSquare.

It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage how the University of Birmingham project could be used by governments to predict the movement of citizens or by companies wanting to lure mobile phone users with details of shops and restaurants.

This issue is part of the important ongoing conversation about the benefit of technology versus privacy.

In the meantime mind your mobile data.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Brilliant piece mate and fantastic that something like this is being brought in to the public domain more. The only exception I’d take though is the automatic belief that the use of location based data (and perhaps then ads) would serve as something which would irritate rather than add value to a person’s life. 

    If we look at the assimption of good marketing being “the right message to the right person at the right time”, it’s petty safe to assume that the one thing the marketing industry has really struggled with is the ‘right time’. The use of location data adds a massive amount of value to the delivery of utility to people.

    UM’a Wave 7 research showed that 58% of people were concerned about the amount of data being shade online, yet 44% said that they’d be quite open to it of there was a decent value exchange. 

    In the age of M2M, think how the connected fridge might very easily send a “get more xx” when your location is recognised as being near the supermarket with which you hold your loyalty card. Somewhat fantastical perhaps but entirely realistic. 

    Businesses like ours, as you would imagine, hold a huge array of data that we can’t realise (or allow others to realise) the benefit of for a number of reasons, the main one being data confidence. 

    There are dozens of data-based opportunities which we could easily implement if we felt the consumer was comfortable with US doing it – but they aren’t and the Snowdon affair has further hampered the public’s distrust of data.

    The irony is though that people like us probably hold more sensitive information than most other retailers in whom the public have more. The issue again becomes one of demonstrating why and how the public should have confidence in us. 
    What’s interesting though is when you look around at some of the stats around the topic of sharing and confidence (O2 did some research called ‘Data Dialogue), whilst numbers quoting concern are often high, the numbers of people open to their data being used if they had some control are huge. 

    The roots of the issue is shifting perception that the people who hold the data are not being deceptive and that people like telcos are not utilities that merely provide simple connectivity. The data we hold could open up a whole new world of utility.  

    • Thanks Paul. Therein lies the challenge for mobile operators and application developers.

      I completely agree that the issue is down to greater understanding and benefit that come from location meta data via mobile devices.

      I find mapping and GPS technology are incredibly useful. I use Google Maps daily and love Hailo for example.

  2. I see both benefits and pitfalls. My criminal side sees how invaluable this information could be for plotting and predicting how to target victims. As a parent I can see applications in tracking and monitoring my children and anticipating keeping them out of trouble. As an employee I can see my employer keeping tabs on me and monitoring my every movement. And as a provider of services I can see how tracking a customer can help to improve the services we offer. I’m not sure that we’re informing ourselves or our children enough to think through the consequences if giving away so much of our personal information.

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