Spain tracking mobile phones on massive scale for statistical survey

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By Euronews
FILE PHOTO: November 13, 2019 A spectator looks at his mobile phone during Tennis - ATP Finals
FILE PHOTO: November 13, 2019 A spectator looks at his mobile phone during Tennis - ATP Finals   -   Copyright  Images via Reuters/Tony O'Brien

Spain's National Institute of Statistics (INE) has launched a controversial survey this week involving tracking mobile phones on a massive scale — and without the consent of customers.

The move raised concerns over consumers' privacy and data protection, with some questioning the legality of such a survey.

From Monday to Thursday, the institute will seek to determine how many mobile phones are active at a given time and where they are located.

The survey will continue on November 24, December 25, July 20, and August 15.

For the purpose of the study, the national territory will be divided up into 3,200 cells with more than 5,000 residents each.

Data collected for the survey will be completely anonymous, in line with privacy laws, INE said.

Under no circumstances will the movements of the people who carry the phones be followed, the agency assured.

The purpose is to understand mobility dynamics within the national population on workdays or during holidays.

INE signed an agreement with the three main mobile phone operators in the country for the implementation of the survey, paying them almost half a million euros in total.

The agency says the survey can help save about one hundred million euros in the coming years as information on mobility is added to its Population and Housing Census.

How do I know if they are tracking my phone?

The three major mobile phone companies, Movistar, Vodafone and Orange are participating in the study. Together, they represent almost 80% of the market, according to data from the National Commission of Markets and Competition.

Customers of the independent operator MásMóvil and the Virtual Mobile Operators, who are not part of the agreement, will not be monitored.

How to avoid being tracked?

The easiest way to avoid being part of the study is to turn off your mobile phone or put it into aeroplane mode.

If you want to keep on accessing your data, contact your mobile phone company to enquire about its data protection policy.

For example, Orange and Vodafone allow their users to decide if they want their data to be transferred to third parties — including when data is collected anonymously.

What are the reactions so far?

The launch of the survey triggered angry reactions on Twitter by customers worried about privacy protection.

"It is a shame, the population has not been explained how important it is, considering the current lack of trust in some politicians and companies who use institutions for their own benefits. A shame," a Twitter user said.

Faced with countless questions from customers, Vodafone was forced to explain on its social media platforms how customers can protect their personal data, detailing steps to deactivate the authorization to use data manually.

David Maetzu, a Spanish tech lawyer, questioned the legality of the survey on its website, saying it "raised complex legal problems regarding the applicable regulations."

On his Twitter account, the lawyer explained that traffic, location, and identification data could only be transferred to certain authorized third parties -- and the INE was not among them.