Of a single person,

Making rounds in the internet is the current realization that the United States of America has been listening very keenly on Mrs. Angela Merkel the Chancellor of the strongest economy in Europe, possibly the most powerful woman on earth.

This has been made possible thanks to her phone.  Actually she has been under phone surveillance from 2002 according to a report in Der Spiegel. This elaborates how extensive cell phone surveillance has reached at the individual level.

Cell phone surveillance is a strong surveillance tool that no one is able to escape even the mightiest. The only hope of escaping it is to shun the gadget. As it stands mobile phone use is on the rise right from toddlers to octogenarians. The device is even decisively rooting out laptops and tablets since it can perform all the actions of these devices with greater effect. It is generally agreed that most people have a mobile phone in their reach at all times.

These devices are registered to particular individuals on purchase and since each has a unique signal that it sends to the operator masts, it serves as the owners ID.  The mobile operators also have details that appertain to their clients. These include their working place, their relations and where they live. The trendy gadgets continue to transmit information even when off. The authorities no longer need to ask where you are if you are using one.  


En masse,

This unique nature of mobile phones and the ability to capture and transmit massive data from their users provide a wonderful opportunity for those interested in this data. They can be used to collect census information without ever venturing into the field up to ten million census in a day, people would not even notice.

They can be used in urban planning and designing of infrastructure to support human existence. The data can be used to tell traffic patterns and how different city spaces are occupied at different times of the day. It is estimated that four million people move into cities every day. In 2030 most of the people living on earth will be in urban areas.  These massive human numbers will have to be planned for to avoid chaos.

The government and planners have always resorted to looking around and counting to determine number of people in a population. But now censuses can be taken every few milliseconds, as phones ping cellular networks and reveal their location. This would reduce the cost, efficiency and the labor needed for census.

A group of researchers in Milan presented a paper based on a novel geo-statistical unsupervised learning technique aimed at identifying useful information on hidden patterns of mobile phone use. These hidden patterns regard different usages of the city in time and in space which are related to individual mobility, outlining the potential of this technology for the urban planning community.

They say interpretative tools for the identification of mobility practices in the contemporary metropolis are needed, not only for some known limitations of traditional data sources but also because new forms of mobility are emerging, describing new city dynamics and time-variations in the use of urban spaces by temporary populations. Traditional data sources for urban and mobility investigations (surveys, census) have some known limitations, including high cost of surveys, difficulty of data updating, difficulty of describing city dynamics and time dependent variations in intensity of urban spaces usages by temporary populations at different scales. These new forms of mobility, close to the daily mobility, are characterized both by being based on the use of transportation system, and by the efficient appropriation of information technologies (internet, mobile phone).

Another group of researchers based at the borough of Manhattan in New York says knowing when and where people use greenspace is key to our understanding of urban ecology. The number of cellular phones active in a geographic area can serve as a proxy for human density in that area. Analysis of this information gives vital information on the population.  They use anonymous records of cellular network activity to study the spatiotemporal patterns of human density in an urban area. This gives objective information on timing, location, and magnitude of human presence in different spaces.

On analysis of this data trends emerge. Routine activities showed up like; between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, shopping and leisure activities in Milan’s city center dominate. Sites like museums on the outskirts also show up. From 8 p.m.to midnight on Saturdays, patterns shift, as people congregate in the residential areas. Unique activities like the Milan design week are also captured between midnight and 8 a.m., revealing overnight activity northwest of the city in preparation for daily events of the fiesta.

From the study one notice that cell phones present potent tools not only for individual surveillance as in Mrs. Markel’s case but also for mass applications. While they have mostly been applied for spying they could also be used to design modern cities predict traffic flow and conduct census.


1.      Treelet decomposition of mobile phone data for deriving city usage and mobility pattern in the Milan urban region;  MOX–Report No. 25/2012

2.      Exploring the Use of Urban Greenspace through Cellular Network Activity;  Ramon Caceres, James Rowland, Christopher Small, and Simon Urbanek



Spain has urged the US to give details of any eavesdropping in has been doing , amid reports it monitored 60 million Spanish telephone calls in just a month. The US ambassador to Spain, who had been summoned by its EU minister, vowed to clear the “doubts” that had arisen about his country’s alleged espionage.

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