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    Wall Street Journal: Harvesting a wealth of intimate detail from cellphone data

    The Wall Street Journal continues its in-depth report, “What They Know,” about the state of surveillance in the United States and how these surveillance programs affect individual privacy. In the latest installment, the Journal looks at the amount of data that can be gathered from a person’s mobile phone. The Journal article comes amid controversy concerning researchers’ revelations about the tracking and storage of users’ location data on Apple iPhones and 3G-enabled iPad tablets and news that Google also collects location data of people using its Android phones.

    The Journal reports:

    For almost two years, Alex Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has tracked 60 families living in campus quarters [at an apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass.] via sensors and software on their smartphones—recording their movements, relationships, moods, health, calling habits and spending. In this wealth of intimate detail, he is finding patterns of human behavior that could reveal how millions of people interact at home, work and play.

    Through these and other cellphone research projects, scientists are able to pinpoint “influencers,” the people most likely to make others change their minds. The data can predict with uncanny accuracy where people are likely to be at any given time in the future. Cellphone companies are already using these techniques to predict—based on a customer’s social circle of friends—which people are most likely to defect to other carriers.

    The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus, research shows. […]

    So far, these studies only scratch the surface of human complexity. Researchers are already exploring ways that the information gleaned from mobile phones can improve public health, urban planning and marketing. At the same time, researchers believe their findings hint at basic rules of human interaction, and that poses new challenges to notions of privacy. […]

    Today, almost three-quarters of the world’s people carry a wireless phone. That activity generates immense commercial databases that reveal the ways we arrange ourselves into networks of power, money, love and trust. […]

    As a tool for field research, the cellphone is unique. Unlike a conventional land-line telephone, a mobile phone usually is used by only one person, and it stays with that person everywhere, throughout the day. Phone companies routinely track a handset’s location (in part to connect it to the nearest cellphone tower) along with the timing and duration of phone calls and the user’s billing address.

    Typically, the handset logs calling data, messaging activity, search requests and online activities. Many smartphones also come equipped with sensors to record movements, sense its proximity to other people with phones, detect light levels, and take pictures or video. […]

    Advances in statistics, psychology and the science of social networks are giving researchers the tools to find patterns of human dynamics too subtle to detect by other means.

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