Thursday, 05 Jun, 2008 Science

Researchers Secretly Identified Users of Mobile Phones Outside US


Researchers managed to secretly identify the positions of 100,000 people outside U.S. through their mobile phone use. They claim that the majority of people rarely go more than a few miles from their homes. This study is the first of its kind. It was performed by scientists from the Northeastern University. Though the study brought some specific results, it still raised a number of privacy and ethical questions due to the "spying" methods applied by researchers, which is "de jure" illegal in the United States.

As regarding the results of the study, it should be mentioned that people move around very little throughout their daily life. About 75 percent of studied people mostly stayed within a 20 mile-wide circle for a half-year period. Researchers refused to disclose where the study was performed. They only mentioned that the studied region was an industrialized nation.

For identifying individuals through their cell phones, scientists used cell phone towers. They tracked people whenever a phone call or a text message was received or made during a period of six months. During another set of records, scientists analyzed another 206 cell phones that featured tracking devices and every 2 hours received data regarding the locations of people over a period of one week. Researchers performed their study using cell phone records provided by a private company, which was not revealed.

Cesar Hidalgo is the co-author of the study. He works as a physics researcher at Northeastern University. He mentioned that neither he nor his colleagues possessed the individual phone numbers, due to the fact that they were covered by "ugly" 26-digit-and-letter codes.

Rob Kenny, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, outlined that such tracking without any agreement would be illegal in U.S. The study was published in the journal Nature. It discloses the area of human-tracking for making researches and draws attention to a continuously increasing problem called locational privacy.

"This is a new step for science," outlines Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, the co-author of the study, who holds the position of director of Northeastern's Center for Complex Network Research. "For the first time we have a chance to really objectively follow certain aspects of human behavior," he added.

Albert-Lazlo Barabasi mentioned that most of the time he was concerned with privacy issues, because his colleagues were not aware about which phone numbers were used in the study. Researchers could not state the precise location of people, only which of the cell phone towers was transmitting the calls. Scientists began analyzing six million phone numbers and then picked 100,000 at random in order to provide additional level of anonymity for people involved in the research.

Mr. Barabasi said that he didn't consult with any ethics panel. According to Hidalgo, researchers did not require to check with any ethics panel due to the fact that their experiment did not involve biology, but physics.

"There is plenty going on here that sets off ethical alarm bells about privacy and trustworthiness," said Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. In an email he wrote that studies performed on normal behavior at public places represent a "fair game for researchers" until someone figures out personalities.

"So if I fight at a soccer match or walk through 30th Street train station in Philly, I can be studied. But my cell phone is not public. My cell phone is personal. Tracking it and thus its owner is an active intrusion into personal privacy," he said.

"It certainly is a major concern for people who basically don't like to be tracked and shouldn't be tracked without their knowledge," outlined Paul Stephens, policy director at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. Hidalgo, the co-author of the study mentioned that statistics and specific examples are different. He said that people tracked in the research represented more statistics than specific examples.

"In the wrong hands the data could be misused. But in scientists' hands you're trying to look at broad patterns.... We're not trying to do evil things. We're trying to make the world a little better," he said, adding that by knowing people's travel patterns could be of great help to designing transportation systems and provide doctors with useful information on the spread of various diseases.

Commenting on other results of the study Barabasi said: "Despite the fact that we think of ourselves as spontaneous and unpredictable ... we do have our patterns we move along and for the vast majority of people it's a short distance. There's a lot of people who don't like hectic lives. Travel is such a hassle."

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