Op-Ed: Big Brother is watching your phone call records

2 June 2017


This story was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Journalism, Film and TV and Unisa’s Department of Communication Science.

It’s not his finest hour. Senior magistrate of the Cape District, HJ Venter, is in the witness box of the Western Cape High Court. The success of a serious criminal case over which he presided may be in jeopardy, and he has some serious questions to answer.

It all started mid-2003. In just over three months, three cigarette trucks belonging to the British American Tobacco Company of South Africa (BATSA) were hijacked – two in the Western Cape, near Rawsonville and Darling, and a third outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Armed men disguised as police and traffic officials pulled over the trucks at mock road blocks, and stole their cargo. After the first two robberies, police were clueless.

Fortunately, an informer identified five suspects, and provided law enforcement with the numbers of the cellphones they allegedly used during the heists.

Today, a three-year-old will warn you that it’s a bad idea to use your mobile during a robbery. But back in 2003, the boys probably didn’t think much about the fact that their phones were generating incriminating data. A mobile service provider’s network stores information about outgoing and incoming calls, primarily for billing purposes. The data includes the ownership details of the phone and SIM card, the numbers you dial, the numbers of the people who call you, the call duration, the starting and finishing times of calls, and your approximate location when you make or receive a call. This information is known by various names – call records, billing records, call data, call-related information, metadata, and archived communications-related information, to name a few. Read the full article in The Daily Maverick here.