What Does Your Smartphone Metadata Reveal About You?

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Every advance in technology seemingly opens up a new Pandora’s Box fraught with new challenges for each succeeding generation. The smartphone has changed the way we live. Those who are old enough to remember when a mobile phone was known as a “car phone,” bigger than a lunchbox and three times as heavy still occasionally marvel at just what the industry has been able to accomplish in the last three decades.

However, if you have been paying attention lately, you will notice that the term “metadata” as it relates to “lawful interception” has been in the news. Recently, the Australian Federal Police made a request for more access to mobile phone metadata as a part of the Senate’s evaluation of federal laws concerning mass surveillance.

The Obvious Question: What is Metadata?

Metadata is defined as data that provides information about other data. In the smartphone industry, it is information about smartphone communications. This includes things such as our phone numbers, webpage addresses, email addresses and most of what we would see if we inspect our telephone bills.

Metadata has become important recently because the explosion in smartphone use has expanded the amount of data available. Before smartphones, when messages were left on answering machines, actual voice mails were not collected. However, the “footprints” left by telephone calls were a valuable resource to investigators trying to establish relationships between suspects and other persons of interest.

Investigators occasionally bugged calls, but found the metadata a lot more important in establishing chains of contact.

How Mobile Phones Have Changed the Game

Due to its reliance on computers, mobile phone metadata has always been a goldmine for investigators. Every call was on record: whether it was forwarded, whether it was answered and how long the conversations were. Due to cellular signals being bounced off of a series of towers, mobile phone metadata also provides location to within a circle of two or three km. Incidentally, location is still available even when the phone is not being actively used for a call.

How the Mobile Internet Changed the Game Again

All of this metadata was available on the old 2G system. Now that we routinely access the Internet with our smartphones, even more information is available to investigators. Adding the Internet to smartphones has increased the amount phones are used compared to when they were only used for voice.

Now we surf the Internet, visit websites, download apps and pictures, upload pictures to sites like Facebook and provide much more information about ourselves than was possible even ten years ago. When we send images, they include GPS metadata, as do comments on Facebook.

However, some metadata can be hidden from the public and from investigators. For example, many online games have an in-game communication feature. This can be abused to pass messages back and forth anonymously. Another way to ensure privacy is for users to share a common email address and communicate by writing drafts but not sending them. This allows everyone on the account to read what was written but doesn’t send the message into cyberspace.

We are waiting to see what the government has to say after this year’s review. Last year, they proposed that Internet providers save all metadata for two years. The proposal was withdrawn.

What an App Developer Should Think When Reading This

Using our formula of finding a problem or a need and filling it with an app, there are plenty of possibilities here. We can see near-infinite possibilities of how to take advantage of this information. There are two main categories that will prosper here: collecting information and protecting people from having their information collected.

For example, you might want to come up with a web-based app that allows private telephone conversations. How about a “scrambler” encryption app? Or an app to make metadata moot by bouncing calls from tower to tower and protect anonymity callers on both ends of the conversation?

Is there a way to help investigators collect information? Imagine if you came up with an app that became a staple of every police force in Australia. Better yet, what if you created an information-collecting app that became popular globally?

How about a “private detective app” that parents could use for their children’s smartphones? Or an app allowing police to covertly access telephone metadata?

It’s All Up to You

We hope this has stimulated your curiosity and creativity. The age of metadata has caused plenty of problems and dilemmas. With each problem or dilemma comes opportunity. If you have a great idea for an app, call Smarter Apps for a consultation: 1300 650 253.

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