What your cellphone provider knows about you

There have been many reports of government institutions spying on South African citizens, and cellphone records are often mentioned in these reports.

Cellular records are of great value in any investigation, because of the amount of information gathered through a person’s cellphone use.

Apart from basic RICA information like a subscriber’s name and address, lots of other data is stored by mobile providers.

This data includes who users phoned, who they received calls from, who they SMSed, and where they used their phone.

Mobile operators also record IP session data, and even which websites users visited on the Internet (on request).

There are even suggestions that authorities can monitor mobile messaging information with the help of the operators.

From the information which is stored, a mobile operators can easily deduce information like when you wake up, when you go to sleep and other usage patterns.

With the right surveillance order a mobile operator can also quickly figure out who you associate with, your movements and the like.

Armed with a valid subpoena, South African authorities can intercept and monitor communications like calls and SMSes.

What mobile operators monitor and record

With all of this information at their fingertips, it raises the question as to how much of this data is stored by local operators, and who has access to this information.

A 2013 CNN report revealed that US operators use this data, in partnership with third parties, for marketing purposes.

This data includes web searches, app usage, and other Internet data, which is then matched with in-depth user demographic information.

While the data is stripped of any personally-identifying information before distribution, some people feel uncomfortable with the system.

Local operators seem to have a less aggressive approach to data collection and sharing – or at least that it what their official feedback suggests.

Vodacom said the information it stores is governed by RICA. In summary:

  • Communication-related information, whether real-time or archived, must be stored for three years. This is typically your call data related information, outgoing/incoming, and your site location when you made or received the call.
  • RICA, a face-to-face verification of the owner’s information, is done, and the information is then captured of which law enforcement are entitled to this information by means of a Section 205 in terms of the criminal procedure act, or as part of a directive in terms of the interception and monitoring act.
  • Sections 7/8 of the interception and monitoring act make provision for location-based assisting in real time in emergency circumstances.
  • Only if a directive is issued in terms of the interception and monitoring act can a dedicated judge issue a directive to intercept voice and data communication.

It is understood that no records of SMS content is kept – only a note that an SMS was sent, for billing purposes.

It should be noted that the stored information is not directly linked to a person, but rather to a number and a handset. To link this data to a person is only possible under special circumstances.

Cell C said it complies with all applicable laws of South Africa when requested to supply information to law enforcement agencies.

These laws include the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 and the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act, No. 70 of 2002.

“Only one dedicated unit within Cell C is mandated to supply evidential documentation and/or information to law enforcement agencies and such documentation and/or information will only be supplied in terms of lawful requests,” the company said.

“Cell C will further only supply information that is provided for within the applicable laws, including call logs and RICA information. Cell C does not store call contents and conversations.”

MTN confirmed that it stores a wide variety of content about it subscribers, including call logs, SMS logs, which websites a subscriber visited, IP session information and instant messaging use.

Telkom did not say what information it stores about it users. The company stated it “will furnish call data in accordance with the requirements of a court order, if the data is available on our database”.

Telkom did say it does not proactively store the contents of communications.

What your mobile operator knows about you

The following infographic shows what information about you and your mobile use is available to mobile operators.

What your mobile operator knows about you
What your mobile operator knows about you

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What your cellphone provider knows about you