Spain to track citizen locations for days, without consent, in the name of monitoring “population movements”

Is it legal?


Spain is about to run an experiment, tracking its citizens' every move in the real world for several days by using location data transmitted by their mobile phones.

INE, the Spanish Statistical Office, will be monitoring the population November 18-21, on Sunday, November 24, and on three more holiday and vacation season days – Christmas Day, and July 20 and August 15, the Spanish daily El Pais writes.

The massive undertaking will be done in collaboration with three major mobile operators – Movistar, Vodafone and Orange – and will, according to the report, include data collected from phones of at least 17.5 million Spaniards, out of the country's total 46.6 million citizens.

The territory will be divided into 3,500 units, with the movements of least 5,000 people to be monitored in each. The authorities will learn people's place of residence from data collected at night, and then monitor their whereabouts during the day.

Some of the information to be revealed in this way is how many people commute to work from outside a city, how many work close to home, or in a different part of their city.

Why is Spain doing this? Supposedly to give local governments insight into population movements that will allow them to improve transport and infrastructure, or “claim more funds for health and education.”

The portion of the study that will derive data from Christmas Day and the summer season is meant to show where people spend their vacation, down to how many families reunite for Christmas, and, for example, how many residents of Madrid go to Benidorm on vacation.

The report doesn't mention it, but it seems unlikely that any kind of consent will be sought from those participating in the experiment. However, the Spanish Statistical Office promises that everything it receives from the three mobile operators will be scrubbed of any personally identifiable information and instead be “completely anonymous.”

The only other country in Europe to have done something of the kind so far is the Netherlands – but that involved much smaller population and data sets.

And is it legal? The article said that the Statistical Office has “proven” that it will not be breaching data protection laws.


Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]