Open Menu Close Menu

Northeastern Cell Phone Study Draws Anger; University Defends Researcher

Looking for a little privacy in your life? If so, you might want to leave that cell phone behind. Research released last week by Northeastern University showed not only how easy it is to track individuals by their cell phone usage, but how easy it is to track massive groups of people as well--all without their consent. The research has drawn the ire of those both inside and outside academia for the act of breaching these individuals' privacy and for the implications for further enabling the surveillance culture. But Northeastern is defending the research, saying that the privacy of those studied was of the utmost concern.

The results of the research itself were fairly unstartling, concluding simply that people in large part do not travel very far from homes in their daily lives and that they settle into regular patterns in their travels. The methodology and secrecy of the study, however, raised several concerns. Researchers, with funding from the United States Office of Naval Research, tracked some 100,000 people without their knowledge but with the consent of an unnamed carrier, using their cell phone billing records for six months. In the United States, such tracking is not (quite yet) legal. Northeastern researchers have not disclosed the name of the country in which the tracking took place, saying only that it was a country in Europe. The researchers also tracked the movements of another 206 individuals with GPS-enabled phones over a one-week period.

And it's this clandestine aspect to the study that has some up in arms.

Writing for CNET, Don Reisinger stated, "Instead of performing a study that has some serious social consequences that may make understanding human nature just a bit easier, the researchers at Northeastern University chose instead to follow a path that sets a dangerous precedent for privacy issues and looks dangerously similar to many more privacy problems we've witnessed over the past few years."

Reisinger isn't alone. Since details of the study were released last week, dozens of articles have appeared (out of hundreds covering the research itself) questioning the methods of the researchers.

But in a confusing time for many, when body scanners in airports, mandatory GPS tracking devices on K-12 students, and pervasive video surveillance inside and outside the education system are the norm--or, at least, a part of the growing trend toward institutional omniscience--what is it about this study that has triggered such alarm?

As the Associated Press reported Thursday:

[Study co-author Albert-László Barabási] said he did not check with any ethics panel. [Co-author Cesar] Hidalgo said they were not required to do so because the experiment involved physics, not biology. However, had they done so, they might have gotten an earful, suggested bioethicist Arthur Caplan at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There is plenty going on here that sets off ethical alarm bells about privacy and trustworthiness," Caplan said. "... [M]y cell phone is not public. My cell phone is personal. Tracking it and thus its owner is an active intrusion into personal privacy."

This, according to Northeastern, is a gross mischaracterization.

Still, the issue is a touchy one. "Location awareness" is a selling point for mobile technologies. Yahoo, Loopt, and others are pushing location-based social networking through mobile devices. (Loopt, incidentally, showed off its location-based social networking service running on iPhone at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference Monday.) But these services are opt-in.

"But," asked Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb, "what happens when companies or governments start using technologies like these to track us against our will, or without our consent?"

Northeastern, however, defended Barabási and his research Friday and denied that the study was conducted without ethical oversight, stating, "The study relied on a sample from anonymized, aggregate billing data from cell-phone users in an unidentified European country. The Institutional Review Board at the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which funded this study as part of a larger pool of research into human mobility patterns, reviewed the proposal in June 2007 and determined that it did not involve human subjects."

Northeastern's full response can be found here.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

comments powered by Disqus