Virgin Mobile admits storing customer location records

Every Virgin Mobile phone call is tracked to within a few hundred metres. Virgin plans to keep the data 'indefinitely', and privacy advocates are not happy
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Virgin Mobile admitted late last week that has been storing information that records its customers' movements around the UK since November 1999, and has no plans to delete the data.

According to a report in The Guardian on Saturday, Virgin Mobile has been saving user location records since it launched nearly two years ago. This information tells a mobile operator the location of a customer each time they made a call, and is accurate to a few hundred metres.

As a virtual mobile phone operator, Virgin Mobile buys network capacity from One2One. A spokeswoman has explained that the customer location records are stored by One2One, and that there are no plans to delete them.

The Information Commissioner (formerly the Data Protection Commissioner) is understood to be investigating this practice to see if it is legal to store such information.

Civil rights expert Caspar Bowden has already expressed deep concern that such records are being kept, at a time when politicians are pushing for more electronic data to be retained. "Sensitive data revealing where you are, and who you talk to could be pulled into a central databases for public demonstrations, health and safety, tax, or minor crime," Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, told The Guardian.

Following September's terrorist attacks, governments are understood to be pushing for tighter control of data traffic. British officials told ZDNet UK last Friday that Home Secretary David Blunkett could be close to bringing in sweeping powers that would force Internet Service Providers to retain more customer data.

Experts warn, however, that terrorists already find ways to avoid leaving "electronic fingerprints". Bowden said that competent criminals already buy pre-pay mobile phones, which they only use once before throwing away.

According to the mobile industry, customer location records help to ensure decent network coverage across the country. By recording which base station a user connects to when they make a call, operators can tell where mobile phone usage is greatest and ensure they can cope with this demand.

See the Mobile Technology News Section for full coverage.

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