Is It Fair Game To Track People's Movements Via Their Mobile Phones?

from the ethical-questions dept

For many years, there have been efforts under way to use data from mobile phones to determine where people are or how they travel. Often this is used with the idea of getting useful automobile traffic info (if mobile phones are moving slowly, so are their cars). However, this has resulted in some privacy concerns, with people wondering why their data is being used in this way. And stories about how the boss of a big Chinese telco regularly uses the data to spy on people's location probably don't make people any more comfortable.

However, some researchers worked with an unnamed mobile phone company to get a ton of this type of data in order to get an idea of how people move around. While the researchers seem to think the results are surprising, they don't seem all that unexpected. Basically, people tend to just go to a few regular places rather than travel randomly around -- and most people don't travel far from home all that often. I'm somewhat surprised that anyone would have expected otherwise.

What may be more interesting, though, is the brewing controversy over how this data was obtained and whether or not it violated privacy rights or ethics rules. The researchers note that the data was totally anonymized, but we've all seen how any anonymized dataset can be unanonymized with a little work. In some ways, this goes back to a post we had last year from Tom Lee, questioning whether we needed new privacy norms when it came to things like mobile phone tracking. What does seem likely, however, is that we're only going to hear of more and more cases where such tracking data is used, and such questions about privacy and morality probably won't hold much weight next to the desire to get and use that kind of data.

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  • identicon
    Track This..., 5 Jun 2008 @ 6:28pm

    Meh, some people need to get a life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Simon Dresner, 5 Jun 2008 @ 7:36pm

    Mobile phone tracking

    Privacy is a precious right which we often do not appreciate until after we've lost it. In China and other countries, everyone spied on their neighbors. I was recently stoppped by a police car whose officer said a car behind me had told them on a cell phone that I was driving erratically (I wasn't). In the cause of safer traffic, drivers are encouraged to spy on one another. The trade, spying for safety's sake, is one small step into big-brother land. So is reporting "suspicious" persons on airlines. Spying on others used to be considered a despicable practice. But in a wired world it is so easy that spying at all levels already has far outpaced any limiting legislation. We already expect to be spied upon. Welcome, big brother!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Archer0911, 5 Jun 2008 @ 7:37pm

    two-edged sword

    while i can see a use for this kind of information (ie: road improvements/upgrades for highly traveled areas, etc), i agree that privacy would be a concern. For me, privacy isn't much of an issue as i don't really have much that i consider private, but in all fairness, other's do, whether business or personal. Just my quik thoughts tho :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Steve R. (profile), 6 Jun 2008 @ 5:44am

      Re: two-edged sword

      I continue to be amazed that people are upset and howl with much anguish by one form of supposed "privacy" intrusion while ignoring those intrusions that hurt you such as identify theft. Privacy concerns related to Google taking pictures for its mapping program or your cell phone being used as a tracking device, while valid don't really warrant the level of outrage that I see. Credit cards by the way are a wondrous tracking device!

      Now when it comes to corporations collecting our personal information and then selling,trading,buying it that is a whole different story. When telemarketers call, they are intruding into your space and using your equipment (phone) that you paid for. Since this is an election year, I have been getting a whole bunch of "friendly" calls from Hillary, and John (recorded calls are insulting). When a credit card solicitation arrives in the mail and someone steals it, they can use it for identity theft. Yet there is little interest in stopping these abusive intrusions into your private space.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bobbknight, 5 Jun 2008 @ 8:15pm

    If You Don't Want It

    Then don't use it, or turn it off and remove the battery.
    Problem solved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Grokk, 5 Jun 2008 @ 9:06pm

      Re: If You Don't Want It

      Just the same approach to the only real remotely unhackable computer being one that's turned off.

      As long as people are aware of what 'could' be done with this data then they have the choice to use, or not to use the devices.

      I think this whole "Privacy" thing is constantly being taken way too far. If you want privacy, then lock your doors, close the blinds and shut off anything that runs on electricity inside your abode.
      Otherwise get used to having someone else know what you are/aren't doing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jun 2008 @ 8:17pm

    Do you really need that phone ?

    Soon they will remove the off switch.
    For the really paranoid, remove the battery.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    mobiGeek, 5 Jun 2008 @ 8:26pm

    Already given up that privacy

    If you give an organization your identification and carry around technology that allows them to locate you, then you've already given up that privacy.

    Yes, laws can be enacted to try to protect that information from misuse, but that information "wants to be free" (or, rather, "other forces will set that information free), free from the artificial barrier holding back its use for other purposes.

    Money, persuasion, threats, deception, etc... will set that information free, towards a different purpose.

    People need to understand what giving out personal identification does now that we have information technology. Data, once in electronic form, simply will not be protected from unintended use.

    We may feel that computers have been around for a long time, but our culture around information is still stuck in a pre-digital age. I haven't the answer; I certainly don't want databases of information being tied together allowing data mining of my digital presence...but I don't see how this can be stopped. And "staying off the grid" doesn't appeal to me either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dev, 5 Jun 2008 @ 9:19pm

    "the data was totally anonymized"

    Though, if you look at where the phone was during normal sleep hours, you can pretty much guess their home address.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    NET625, 5 Jun 2008 @ 9:24pm


    I personaly would not like people to know where I am going. I would also like some one to ask because I would be willing to give up that info but I would like alot inreturn. So far I haven't gotten a thing and I am now pulling out the battery to my phone when going places. Uncle sam doesn't need to know about my drug addiction and the "house" that I go to. But it would seriously be cool to hack the system and track people at random.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mr Obvious Man, 6 Jun 2008 @ 12:09am

    Of course you are being tracked.

    Since the US decided that cellphones should ALL be trackable (ostensibly for 911 calls, ya, right,... until they find some other need for the data) I have always assumed that I or rather my cellphone is being tracked and that the information is recorded for god only knows how long, I assume forever.

    My personal peeve was paying for the GPS chip in the phone without being able to use it myself. My mogul phone lets me use my gps chip so, eh, whatever.
    Personally, if I ever needed to not be tracked I'd leave the phone somewhere that gave me a decent alibi.
    However in reality I really don't care, it still doesn't make it right, but I really don't care if john law or bob researcher can tell where I spend my time.

    And I agree that there is no possible way to "anonymize" that data, if you can tell where I go to sleep or where I work, you can find me.

    I would like to see laws put in place that require at least as much rigor as a wiretap to access the location data on a person's phone AND some mandated limit on location data retention.

    Good luck to us... we need it...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Nasch, 6 Jun 2008 @ 9:23am

      Re: Of course you are being tracked.

      My personal peeve was paying for the GPS chip in the phone without being able to use it myself.

      Your phone probably does not have GPS. e911, as it's called, is generally implemented by triangulating from cell towers, not satellites. The purpose (or at least one purpose) is to track where people are when they call 911, so no need to make it work if you're out of cell range. Of course it could still be useful if you're only in range of one tower, but since nobody lives outside of cities with lots of towers around, who cares right?

      It doesn't make sense for the cell phone maker to spend the extra money putting GPS capability into the phone if nobody benefits from it. The only way that would not be the case is if they sell "different" models where the only difference is the GPS is usable or not, but that would surprise me.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2008 @ 4:50am


    "Is It Fair Game To Track People's Movements Via Their Mobile Phones?"

    No. Next question.

    (and the fact that one has to even ask this and not assume otherwise speaks poorly of us all)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    wayout, 6 Jun 2008 @ 5:58am

    Re: Mobile phone tracking

    It really amazes me, when I hear people who are so willing to simply give something away, others have died for..Privacy may not be a right as defined in the Constitution but the Constitution was created to spell out the limited rights or powers given to the federal government. And it was clearly understood that the government had no powers that weren't authorized in the Constitution. So where is the right granted to the govt or anybody for that matter to spy on us without our consent. This giving up of liberties hit home with me during a conversation with a younger student in class one time. He was more than willing to give up the right to vote because he didnt see the need to have that right..When you take a little from each generation, the next generqtion has no idea what it has lost and is more willing to give something else up when asked. Any of you remember this little tidbit from a couple of years ago..
    My favorite comment from this
    "I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Chief Harold Hurtt told reporters Wednesday at a regular briefing.
    Give an inch they will take a mile...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      mobiGeek, 6 Jun 2008 @ 9:27am

      Re: Re: Mobile phone tracking

      Adding "others have died for" does not support your argument to any degree. It derails any credibility your logical points may have had.

      I agree that privacy is something to protect, but I also realize that as technology progresses that we need to properly understand what we refer to when we talk about "privacy" and how it relates to other things that technology brings us: convenience, security, social interaction, etc.

      Blindly wrapping "privacy" around an issue so as to dismiss the potential of technology is to deny the fact that technology is here, will progress, and thus will be abused.

      We need to have a greater discussion as to what we refer to as "privacy", what are the goals of "privacy" and what practical limitations we're willing to impose on ourselves in order to keep that privacy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        wayout, 6 Jun 2008 @ 10:01am

        Re: Re: Re: Mobile phone tracking

        "Adding "others have died for" does not support your argument to any degree" Does support my argument, the soliders of the Revolutionary war, WWI, & WWII all fought against tyranical despots whom would have been glad to strip away your privacy amongst other liberties had they won. So yes they did die for us to have what some are so willing to simply give away without a fight. Talk to any WWII vetern that is left and see what point of view you come away with...Maybe the same I dont know..maybe not?
        I agree that technology is here to atay, and will continue to progress, but that does not mean that we simply let it progress for progression sake, without a careful examination of the potential for abuse, and put in place safeguards against that. We shouldnt blindly accept technology either simply because its supposed to make our lives easier (dumber to in some cases)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rubberman, 6 Jun 2008 @ 6:39am

    Fair Game!

    I think that tracking a person's movements via their cell phone, even if there are no "personally identifiable" markers in the data, is a gross violation of personal privacy. If I found out that this was going on in any place where I do business, I would boycott them in perpetuity. Sony lost my business forever because of their CD root-kit. They will never get another penny from me, voluntarily at least.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      mobiGeek, 6 Jun 2008 @ 9:33am

      Re: Fair Game!

      Then you should not have a credit card, a cell phone, a metro pass, any telephone at all, nor use the internet, go to any mall, etc...

      You are blankly giving up any and all technological advances and/or modern conveniences by simply stating that you'd "boycott them in perpetuity". Any and all organizations that have information about you are using them in ways that you likely aren't 100% happy about, and there is the potential (usually realized, though you aren't aware of it) of misuse of that information.

      Do you know that none of your neighbours, who work for a large organization (utility, government, bank, etc...) haven't checked up on the records of everyone on their street?

      Do you know that the credit card company that tracks your purchases hasn't combined your identity and/or spending patterns with some other database (IRS, law enforcement, immigration, advertising, ...)?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 6 Jun 2008 @ 9:36am

    I think John Spartan said it best; "Why don't you just shove a leash up my ass? This fascist crap makes me wanna puke!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 6 Jun 2008 @ 11:07am

    triangulating from cell towers

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 6 Jun 2008 @ 11:44am

    triangulating from cell towers

    RE #16, you replied to #10, but your correction was incorrect.

    His phone absolutely does have GPS. He said he had the HTC Mogul. He has network-independent GPS and can install third party apps like Garmin's, and he could run it without turning on his cellular radio.

    You also said location was "generally implemented by triangulating from cell towers, not satellites." Which is false on two counts:

    1) In the US, most phones are CDMA, and have a GPS chip inside from the Snaptrack division of Qualcomm. The GSM carriers tried to use tower solutions to provide location, but haven't had good accuracy, so they are adding GPS to many GSM phones, like my AT&T Tilt. If you are talking about outside the USA, you are almost.

    2) There is no triangulation!! Why do people have such a hard time with this? Do you really think that a tower calculates the angle to your location, cross references that angle with other towers to pinpoint a location? Radar calculates angles, and had a rotating antenna that can identify where objects are. Ever see a rotating antenna on a cell tower? No. Current cell towers are ALL ignorant of your relative angle, but they CAN determine your relative distance by calculating signal delay of a calibrated/synchronized time stamp. This is very similar to how GPS does it, just using satellites instead of towers. This is called Time Difference Of Arrival (TDOA), or could be called trilateration.

    The poster from #10 that you corrected is actually spot on. Since about 2000, about 95% of new phones sold by CDMA carriers like Sprint or VZW had GPS chips installed "for E911 compliance" but the chips were useless to the customer. You could not install an application that used it, you couldn't see a map, and you couldn't even see a display of your raw latitude and longitude coordinates. Only recently have phone makers exposed ports and APIs so software developoers can tie into the GPS chip.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    EnOne, 6 Jun 2008 @ 12:00pm

    How do you think they know where to call you

    Someone dials a number and within seconds the company is able to connect them to your phone even if you're a thousand miles away. They don't send out a search on every tower. Your phone let's the company know where you are. Continually. All the time. This is the data they used. Just because you we're not aware of how a cell phone worked doesn't mean you can get upset now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 6 Jun 2008 @ 12:51pm

    People Stick To Normal Routines

    I'm with you Mike: Why is it surprising that people stick to their routine? People are not only creatures of habit, but also tend to have schedules, schools, jobs, gyms. Duh.

    I actually have a small sample of research on this. I've been experimenting with aftermarket GPS like Garmin, Tom Tom, and Magellan devices for about 8 years. Whenever a guest visits me in California, I lend them my car, and teach them to use the GPS (Garmin Streetpilot 2820). Over the 8 years, EVERY person has said "Wow, that thing is awesome. I didn't get lost, and found the addresses, the winery, the museum, and even used it to find a gas station."

    So I say to them, "OK, so are you going to buy one?" Four of the twelve people have said the price was too high, and 8/12 said, "Nah. It was good here on vacation, but I don't need that at home. I basically just go to work, and seldom go to places that I don't already know how to find."

    I found that surprising, and asked: "Sure, but don't you go to meetings, shows, get-togethers, events at places that you've never been at least once a week?" -"No."

    I disagree with my guests thoroughly about the usefulness of a GPS in the car, but that's a different topic. The point here today is that each of these people surprised me with the same reply: they have a pattern, and seldom break from it. Though it seems foreign to me, by the fourth person, I had to accept that this is normal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Brad, 6 Jun 2008 @ 3:24pm

    Informed Consent

    This is actually pretty heavily illegal. In the US, all psychologists and sociologists learn about "informed consent" when conducting human studies - whereby the participants are informed of their rights and privileges in the study, the ability to opt-out at any time, what risks are involved, what the study is seeking, who will have access to the data, and other things.

    "Anonymous" participants, like in this study, have NO such information. It is not allowed, in the US (where the university conducting the study is located) to conduct research in this manner. Period.

    They are flirting with a gray area though - they conducted the actual data gathering in another "developed" nation - probably someplace in Europe where there cultural implications would be fairly similar. Are you allowed to ignore the rules just because you're doing it in another country? US Government says "yes", but just about every other governing body says "no", including the American Psychological Association, which should look at de-listing this university and revoking the licenses of the researchers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Danny, 4 Jul 2008 @ 1:45pm

      Re: Informed Consent

      Not sure that Brad is correct, but am happy someone is discussing this from the researchers' point of view. Mike original post doesn't seem to take this point of view into account.

      We have some competing societal needs here. One need is for individual privacy. Another need is for research. Research findings help government set policy; research findings help product and service innovation.

      As Brad alludes to, academia has set up a plethora of rules (including informed consent) to protect research subjects. The rules are administered by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) at University and research centers. IRBs are required at organizations that receive federal grants. IRBs have to sign off on most research that involves human subjects. But the rules are not as clear cut as Brad makes them out to be. For example, the rules are much stricter when the subjects are "at risk" populations (children, mentally ill, prisoners, e.g.) that for the general adult population. And rules are stricter for when subjects are identified rather than anonymous.

      I don't know anything about this particular research study, but I know it is possible to the researchers to set up with the cell phone company for the data to already by anonymized when they receive it (that is, obvious identifying information be removed.) Dev, above, notes that GPS identification during sleeping hours pretty much kills that, though - so, agreed, 100% total anonymity is going to be impossible.

      So, there is some trade off here. It is possible for a rogue researcher to misuse data (or lose data to someone else who misuses it). But in either case, it would pretty much kill the career of that researcher - so there is a strong incentive for not doing so.

      Then, we (as a society) need to weigh the benefits of learning behavioral patterns of people with technology vs. absolute privacy.

      My take is that absolutists are usually wrong (I'd say always wrong, but not everyone would get that as humor). What serves society best is a reasoned balance between research and privacy (just as on another front a reasonable balance between security and privacy serves society best.)

      The current IRB system and rules is certainly imperfect (ask any researcher who gets government grants), but it is a fairly good protection mechanism.

      And, while this particular study - according to Mike - didn't provide us with any earth shattering insights, this kind of study is what uncovers knowledge that contributes to innovation. And innovation is what we are after.

      And enlightened public policy as well.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jun 2008 @ 10:28am

    I thought stalking was a felony ....
    Oh, I forgot, that only applies to the common person.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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