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Friday 29 August 2014

Nowhere to hide: how our daily lives are logged by computer

We're being tracked every time we make a call or use a smartphone app

John Reynolds

Published 16/06/2014 | 02:30

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Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes. Photo: Mark Condren
Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes. Photo: Mark Condren

WE are being tracked almost every minute of the day – with mobile phones revealing the most information, according to experts.

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The Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes (below) has already warned of a "crisis" if public bodies do not offer more protection for people's vital information.

Internet experts have pieced together how people provide information for the lucrative social media and retail industries free of charge, and in some cases unwittingly.

Your mobile phone reveals the most information about you, through your usage patterns and the data it sends and receives through the mobile phone network.

When you make or receive a call, text or email, use a smartphone app or access the internet, the time, location and relevant numbers or website addresses are logged by the network.

The EU allows the retention of this sort of data for up to two years by the networks and email providers but that has been challenged in the European Court of Justice.

Still, for now at least, Irish law in the shape of the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 remains in place.

The large US technology companies with European headquarters here such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google and Yahoo top of the list of the companies that gather the most information about people.

Facebook has more than 2.2 million users here and retains a huge amount of information about each of them. We saw just how much in 2012 when an Austrian student requested all of the personal data Facebook held on him. It sent him 1,300 pages of data including data gathered from other people and information the company had generated itself such as GPS locations of where he was likely to have been.

A report released earlier this month by Vodafone, the largest mobile phone network here, revealed that it received 4,124 surveillance requests from the Government in the 12 months to the end of March, while Department of Justice figures suggest about 10,000 requests are made to all phone networks every year.

It is impossible to say how narrow the scope of these requests was, as the Government refused to allow Vodafone to publish any more details of the request.

Information on your movements can also be accessed by foreign governments. The US government is locked in a legal battle with Microsoft because the US authorities want to read emails stored on computer servers in Dublin.

Access

The information we, mostly unintentionally, reveal about ourselves can be valuable to different organisations for different reasons, and access to it is something that needs to be carefully and thoughtfully governed, as well as acknowledged by ourselves.

EU law seems to be evolving in favour of protecting our right to privacy, something that is of increasing concern to privacy campaigners in the light of revelations by US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year that the agency had been spying on people's communications through companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

Irish Independent

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