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ICA Mobile Preconference


Last week I went to Seattle for the ICA Mobile Preconference. On the second day of the workshop I presented some new work on telephony metadata and mobile communication infrastructure. It was a great preconference and I met a lot of experts and old friends. Here’s my extended abstract from the event:

In the last two decades, text messaging has become one of the most popular forms of data transmission across mobile networks. The CTIA (2013) estimates that more than 6 billion text messages are sent and received every day, and the ITU (2013) predicts that by 2014 there will be as many active mobile handsets with data subscriptions as there are people in the world. In most technical accounts of mobile telephony the short message service (SMS) is considered a transmission protocol for a teleservice created in part for second-generation mobile telephony (Trosby 2004, Hillebrand 2010). The history and development of SMS standards and protocols have had great impact on how data is transmitted and collected across mobile networks today, including how text messages have emerged as digital records (Caswell 2009).

Ethnographers, systems designers, and communication researchers have studied many social aspects of texting practice, ranging from public performance (Katz and Aakus 2002), to mobile banking (Barnes et al. 2003), and crises management (Gomez et al. 2011). However, few studies examine how text messages are being relied upon as digital records over time—in personal communication contexts, for social coordination, or as organizational communication (Taylor and Vincent 2005). Increasingly, text messages are classified as electronic communications that are subject to discovery and retention for compliance under the law, and in different privacy, consumer, and surveillance contexts (Paul 2008). While text messages are one of the oldest forms of mobile media, few perspectives offer historical analyses related to the infrastructures of text message transmission (Agar 2003, Goggin 2012). Further, limited attention has focused upon the mobile telephony metadata that is created as part of text message transmission, and captured in different state surveillance and telecommunication service contexts.

Mobile telephony metadata is both structural and descriptive, providing incredible resolution and unique information about mobile phone users (de Montjoye et al. 2013). Recently, the capture and interrogation of mobile telephony metadata in the US has been framed as part of the effort to protect against terrorism and to build a safer, more secure world. However, the impact of telephony metadata is often an under-examined area of interest for mobile communication studies. In the vein of what Heather Horst has called the “third wave of mobile communication research” (2013, p. 147), this paper explores the emerging role that mobile telephony metadata is playing in contexts of collected mobile digital records as traces of transmission. Using infrastructure studies and media archaeology, this study examines the infrastructures of text messaging by presenting two instances of mobile telephony metadata.

First, I present an overview of some recent cases in the US where policy and legislation have expanded and enrolled text messages, call detail records, and mobile telephony metadata as electronic communications. Second, I examine the emergence of a “mobile forensic imagination” with the rise of messaging applications that tout obfuscation or ensure encryption and deletion (Kirschenbaum 2008). For example, Snapchat (2013) and Wickr (2013) both play with popular perceptions of the security and longevity of messages created with mobile devices. The promise of security by way of ephemerality and complete deletion with new messaging applications points to the emergence of a mobile forensic imaginary built upon popular understandings (or misunderstandings) of telephony metadata, and further, how “leaving no mobile traces” supports notions of better lives created with mobile ICTs. By examining the development of text messages as digital records and their subsequent metadata, the current study aims to present some of the implications and broad potential that text messaging infrastructure and metadata have for mobile communication research.