Controversy Erupts Over Secret Cell Phone Tracking


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By JR Raphael
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

You may have been part of a scientific study and not even known it. New word is out this week that researchers used cell phone towers and call records to secretly track every step made by 100,000 people — without ever getting their permission.

The study, conducted by Boston’s Northeastern University, spawns a slew of as-of-yet unanswered questions. We’ve seen how cell phone spying techniques can let other people tap into your private world undetected, but this marks the first documented time the monitoring’s been used on such a large scale, without any authorization.

Northeastern won’t reveal where the study took place other than that it was in an “industrialized nation” and was outside of the United States — a good thing, since the actions would have been a crime in America. Organizations would have to get your permission to legally conduct this kind of research in the U.S.

The researchers pulled data from cell phone towers, logging an exact location any time a call or text came in or out, and also monitored actual records from the cell phone provider. The school won’t reveal which provider agreed to give them that information.

Northeastern says the numbers were disguised, so no one on the team could identify any individual users. That may not be enough, though, to answer all the ethical concerns. Regardless of whether one’s identifying information was attached, the data being accessed was still private information that shouldn’t have been readily available.

The research director says he never consulted with an ethics panel because his experiment involved “physics, not biology,” and it was therefore not required.

The study’s findings, for what they’re worth, were that the majority of people — more than half — rarely venture out of a six mile circle of their homes. Eighty-three percent, the study says, stayed within a 37 mile wide circle.

The study is highlighted in this week’s Nature International Journal of Science. As you’ll see, a fierce debate has already broken out in the comments section of the story, including some calls for the study’s authors to be dismissed from the university.

So, sound-off time: Did the researchers cross a line, and if so, what should happen as a result? The floor is open for discussion — though, you never know, someone might be monitoring what you say.





11 Responses to Controversy Erupts Over Secret Cell Phone Tracking

  1. If the researchers acted in good faith – removing direct user identification up front, crunching their numbers, then discarding the raw data after – then I do not see a problem. The net result is no violation of anyone’s privacy.

    On the flip side – if you are carrying a turned-on cell phone, you should assume that your movements can be tracked. If you make a phone call, you should assume a record of your call is always recorded, and there is some chance the contents of your call is scanned and/or recorded as well.

    You should be worried about your privacy, but you need to focus elsewhere. In the larger scheme these researchers are harmless.

  2. If the researchers acted in good faith – removing direct user identification up front, crunching their numbers, then discarding the raw data after – then I do not see a problem. The net result is no violation of anyone's privacy.

    On the flip side – if you are carrying a turned-on cell phone, you should assume that your movements can be tracked. If you make a phone call, you should assume a record of your call is always recorded, and there is some chance the contents of your call is scanned and/or recorded as well.

    You should be worried about your privacy, but you need to focus elsewhere. In the larger scheme these researchers are harmless.

  3. I agree with Preston. As as aside, almost every cell phone out there today now has GPS tracking built in. So most folks should be aware they can be tracked that way very, very easily. It’s to assist in locating 911 callers, but just like any tracking technology, some folks will be troubled by possible misuses of it, others (like myself) really just don’t care. :)

  4. I agree with Preston. As as aside, almost every cell phone out there today now has GPS tracking built in. So most folks should be aware they can be tracked that way very, very easily. It's to assist in locating 911 callers, but just like any tracking technology, some folks will be troubled by possible misuses of it, others (like myself) really just don't care. :)

  5. I wouldn’t personally care, but I do regard this as an unethical invasion of privacy. I’m very curious as to which cell phone provider let it happen…

  6. I wouldn't personally care, but I do regard this as an unethical invasion of privacy. I'm very curious as to which cell phone provider let it happen…

  7. As a woman who is trying to escape an abusive husband. I am glad that this invasion of privacy is being brought to our attention. When my husband found me the last time. My service provider tried to tell me that it was impossible for him to use my phone to find me if my GPS was turned off. NOT so, google maps still found me. Now to be safe, I only use my phone 15-20 miles from where I am hiding and remove the battery before I come home.

    As a researcher myself, I want people to know this can and is happening. The researchers were collecting data. The same data needed to show that this can happen. While we seem a little nutty claiming that we are under constant watch, it sickens me that we could be.

    • i totally agree with jenny. The same thing is happening to me. I am being stalked by my ex and my cell phone co claims that its impossible for me to be tracked with GPS turned off. Well they are very wrong. It gets proven to me every day that im still being stalked. My ex has even found a company that lets her listen to all my calls and read everything on the phone just like if she is holding the phone itself. Also the police are not willing to help!