Unwitting Research Subjects Studied through Cell Phones

June 05, 2008 12:27 PM
by Liz Colville
The Northeastern University study is the first to use cell phones to track people’s everyday movements, raising privacy concerns.

30-Second Summary

A study used cell phones to track the movements of 100,000 people for six months, finding that most people operated within a short radius of their homes, although “a few hardy souls move long distances in a short time.” Nature magazine published the study on June 5.

The cell phone owners’ identities remained anonymous and the researchers have kept the study’s location a secret, saying only that it was an “industrialized nation” outside the United States.

Tracking cell phone users without their consent raises troubling legal issues. “Tracking [a cell phone] and thus its owner is an active intrusion into personal privacy,” bioethicist Arthur Caplan told the Associated Press.

The study’s coauthor, Cesar Hidalgo, contends that the subjects of the study are being used as “statistics” rather than “examples” and that his team is “not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better.”

A spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, Rob Kenny, told the Associated Press that although nonconsensual tracking is illegal in the United States, consensual tracking “is legal and even marketed as a special feature by some U.S. cell phone providers.”

Tim Barker of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that the study suggests a “loss of privacy that seems to go hand-in-hand with technological advancements.”

In 2007, the Washington Post reported that federal officials solicit tracking information from cell phone companies “so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects.”

Headline Link: ‘Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race’

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