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.