Category Archives: ethics

Opinion: Is Waterboarding Part of Loving Your Neighbour?

Love your neighbour, treat him as you would want to be treated. That’s one of the backbones of the Christian faith. So why hasn’t there been a loud Christian voice when it comes to torture on American shores?
Surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press believe that the use of torture when it comes to terrorist suspects is justified. Those who attend church regularly are the staunchest supporters of this type of torture.

Isn’t that against the belief system though? I seem to recall a tale of cast the first stone, but I could be wrong. It must of been if you cast the first stone I will scream loud and hard, but if I throw it there was a reason for it.

When did it become okay for the American government to do onto others what they would have killed others to do unto them?

If another country tortured suspected Americans on mass to get out a ‘confession’ they would be considered the enemy. Remember the Vietnam War? Korea?

Guess what America, there’s a reason that America is now considered the enemy by other countries.

Do unto others and all that jazz.

Christianity Today
reported in 2007:

“Terrorism may be perceived as a genuine threat to American society and its families,” said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum. “In the 1980s, Christian conservatives were also strong opponents of Communism and the Soviet Union.”

Breaking down the Pew Study it wasn’t just religion that was on the side of torture, political views were another factor. It’s not that surprising that more Republicans say that torture can be justified than Democrats. Education also plays a part, the less education a person has ramps up the chances that they will be in favor of waterboarding as a justified means to an end.

But it’s the Christian voice that contradicts a belief system with the realities that concerns me the most. Peace is another word for torture? Treating your brother to humiliation is fine if they are thought to be on the wrong side?

Maybe, it’s even simpler for me. The theory that I was taught long ago in Sunday School was that two wrongs never make a right.

Somehow I don’t believe that ideal has changed.

Stem Cells And What They Mean To You

On May 9, Cafe Scientifique hosted a discussion titled “Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine and Personalized Medicine: Where are we now and where can we get to?” at York University in Toronto.

The event was part of the city’s Science Rendezvous. Stem cells are in the news a lot these days, from the ethics of their use to the rapid advancements that they have brought to medicine and drugs.

The CIHR (Canadian Institute of Health Research) hosts several Cafe Scientifique’s around the nation each month. The Cafe’s are a way for the public to get a better understanding of different health issues by discussing topics with the real experts.

The latest for Toronto, “Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine and Personalized Medicine: Where are we now and where can we get to?” had a smaller than average turnout due to the rain that kept many inside today.

Three experts discussed their work with stem cells in a clinical setting and in a broader setting, the ethics of use and what they can help or not help with.

Dr. Andras Nagy is part of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto. He started off the lecture with a background on stem cells.

In 1960 Dr. Gordon Keller discovered the human embryonic stem cell while working in Toronto. Dr. Keller was working on cancer research at the time and had no idea where that discovery would lead. Canada has been on the front lines from that beginning and remains so in the field of stem cell research.

In 1981 pre-floating embryonic stem cells in the uterus were discovered in mice. Research from that discovery showed that from one embryo every type of stem cell in the body could be grown in a petri dish.

What have we learned from the humble beginnings? That the human body is made up of 30,000 genes. That apart from bacterias and viruses almost all diseases that face humans are a mutation of one or more of those genes.We also have had to deal with the ethics questions as researchers have found that from just a few embryonic stem cells new life can be created. In 1993 Dr. Nagy knew that mice could be made from stem cells from a mere 10 cells.. Sheep have followed. the news has gone wild this spring when a researcher attempted again to clone a human baby.

Ethics has been a big part of stem cell research, mostly because of where human embryonic stem cells come from, fetuses. Today though most of the human embryonic stem cells that researchers work with come from IVF labs where the ‘parents’ have donated their cells. In Canada and many other countries only a small number of human embryonic stem cells are allowed to be used with each IVF procedure but the ‘harvesting’ process makes between 10 to 15 embryos. Parents can use the additional embryos in future IVF treatments, donate them to other infertile couples, have them destroyed or donate them to science. Nagy believes that by donating these cells to science the couples are rescuing human embryos in a real sense.

There are some drawbacks to stem cells being used in medicine. One is, like organ donation stem cells have to be compatible to the person that they are helping. If they are not then the body will reject them causing even greater problems.

One powerful breakthrough for researchers came in 2006 when it was discovered that it was possible to generate stem cells from skin cells. Using the HIV virus researchers were able to find the genes that had to be removed that left a clean cell. By removing four genes from the skin turned stem cells researchers are able to work with a fresh cell that can be turned into any type of cell.

Researchers have been able to stop type 2 diabetic sufferers from having to use insulin by transplanting pancreatic cells into diabetics. There is a limitation though. Within two years the body goes back to the diabetic state and the mean for insulin comes back. That has told researchers that we are still not at the stage that we can repair genes completely. But in the future that could happen.

When asked about the ‘evils’ about science Nagy compared those in science for the wrong reason with a kitchen knife.

“It’s a big dilemma. Take a kitchen knife. It is useful in the kitchen but can also be used as a deadly weapon. We don’t blame the knife.Stem cell research is the same. The benefit is worth more than the harm.”Dr. Ron Pearlman, Professor of Dept. of Biology, York University was the next to speak. His field focus with stem cells is very personal; the structure, organization and expression of genetic information as it deals with personalized medicine. He and his colleagues are working on ways to analyze a person’s DNA and then sequence it rapidly to identify health risks.

This field has come leaps and bounds within a fairly short time. At the beginning of this decade it cost a person $100 million to know their personal DNA genome. Today that cost is a mere $1,000.

A large spectrum of diseases stem from one single base change in a cell. By learning more about these changes researchers are now able to pinpoint risk factors when studying a person’s DNA. Associate studies of stem cells and DNA have added to a database that helps in the process of going from looking at the population as a whole to each individual person.

At this time many companies like 23 & Me and KnowMe are jumping on the DNA database wagon. Even IBM and National Geographic are teamed up. That team can give people a little information about their ancestors just by looking at a sample of their DNA.

In a more medical sense what these databases in the pharmaceutical genome tell us is that medicine is not a one size fits all. Years ago doctors thought that adult medicine just needed dosage changes when giving it to a child. That science research has uncovered does not work. Children, women and men all have different risk factors that affect medicine. That’s important. Every year 12 to 15 per cent of hospital admissions are a result of adverse drug reactions.

One example of these drug reactions took place in Toronto. An infant died from morphine overdose at Sick Kids Hospital. How could that happen? Why on earth would doctors give an infant to much morphine. The answer is simple, they didn’t. What they did do though was give the right dosage to an infant that was nursing. That infant’s mother was also taking a medicine with codeine in it. In breast milk codeine breaks down and becomes, you guessed it, morphine.

‘Many in the science community fear that they are being held back. We’re in danger of losing the pipeline of information and of innovative ideas. We have to build the building up from the ground instead of from the roof.We, in the science community need for the government to step up and push for more funding.”

As we move into more personalized medicine there are questions about ethics and privacy that will have to be addressed. Will insurance companies be allowed to use the information of risk factors that DNA reveal to deny coverage?

“Science is way ahead of ethics. Ethics has to catch up to science instead of the other way around. We can not hold back research. It’s too important for the society.”

Stem cell research makes medicine safer for the population. We are past the time for using mice on medicine trials. Mice prolong the trials. Things do take time but let’s do what we can to speed up the process.David Brener, PhD. from Pfizer Canada Inc. was the final guest to speak Saturday.

Dr. Brener started off with a question, “What doesn’t personalized medicine do? We can’t cure everyone. We can though start picking patients who will respond the best to medicines.”

By using genetics Pfizer is able to help reduce adverse effects of medications. Genetics allows the company to enhance safety while researching conditions and diseases that medication is used for. It is enabling us to make ‘designer drugs’ at a more rapid pace. In the end stem cells and genetics reduces the time that it takes to develop new drugs at much less the cost than in the past.

In Toronto and Canada we have a wealth of research ongoing. Research is unlocking the academic teaching hospitals making us a leading center of the world for stem cell research.

“Nothing in life is 100% sure. The net benefit vs. net losses shows the miracle of the pharmaceutical industry, by in large we are the breeding ground of the future.”

The health of humans is changing. We are reaching a point where we may be able to reduce the onset of diseases as we learn more about stem cells and the genetics of conditions. This is of great value not only to the individual but to the economy and society as a whole.

We, as researchers will make mistakes and pick bad markers. We won’t always be on point like we have been with Huntington’s Disease, which we now can say 100% if a person has the markers unless they are hit by a car or die in some other manner will come down with the disease. While there are the times researchers think they have gotten something down and then find that they were wrong, it’s those mistakes that are learning processes. The best researchers learn from their mistakes.

When I asked the doctors on the panel about the swine flu vaccine they were hopeful. Asked if Canada will be the one to come up with the final product I was told that it’s possible but what was most important is that it is found, not who finds it. As for Canada, we have the infrastructure in place to be in the lead.

As for where stem cell research is going there is no telling. We can’t predict the future but there is a future. There’s no telling when or where the next big breakthrough will be but we do know it will be exciting. That’s how research is, just a step away from the next big step and it’s always an amazing adventure.

American doctor claims to have cloned human embryos

Doctor Panayiotis Zavos attempted to clone the world’s first human baby. He says he cloned 14 embryos and then transferred 11 of those into four women. None of the attempts resulted into a viable pregnancy.
Cloning human embryos for transfer into a human womb is illegal in most of the world. It is believed that Dr. Zavos, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Cyprus, did the work at a Middle Eastern lab.

The embryos were made from blood cells of a dead 9-year-old named Cody. The child died in a car accident and her relatives asked the doctor to use her blood cells for cloning.

Zavos has in the past used skin cells to clone embryos.

The patients are three married couples and one single woman. They are from Britain, the United States and somewhere in the Middle East.

He told the Independent:

“There is absolutely no way that it will not happen. “If we intensify our efforts we can have a cloned baby within a year or two, but I don’t know whether we can intensify our efforts to that extent.”

The procedures were captured on film by a documentary film maker. Director Peter Williams verified that the women knew that they were having cloned embryos inserted. The film was made for the Discovery Channel and will be aired today.

The ethics of cloned humans is just one reason that cloning has been taboo. Another aspect is that cloned animals have led to early deaths and abnormalities.

In 2004 Dr. Zavos said that he had used skin cells from an infertile man for cloning and transferred that embryo into the man’s wife. He admitted later that experiment failed.

The Independent reports:

“I get enquiries every day. To date we have had over 100 enquiries and every enquiry is serious. The criteria is that they have to consider human reproductive cloning as the only option available to them after they have exhausted everything else,” Dr Zavos said. “We are not interested in cloning the Michael Jordans and the Michael Jacksons of this world. The rich and the famous don’t participate in this.”

The Ethics of Canadian Infants Kaylee Wallace & Lillian O’Connor

Her parents were prepared to say goodbye. Little Kaylee Wallace of Toronto was being taken off life support. Her two months on this Earth was going to have meaning, her tiny heart was going to keep another alive. Kaylee surprised everyone. she lived.
This is the story of two little girls in Canada, Kaylee and Lillian. They are both dying. One’s death was expected to help the other live.

Tuesday night both infants were in the operating room at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. One would be receiving a heart, the other was being removed from life support in order for the heart to be ready.

The little fighter who had survived only by life support did the impossible. She breathed on her own.

The girls were taken back to their beds at the hospital. A miracle has happened.

Kaylee has the very rare Joubert syndrome, a malformation of the brain and brain stem that can stop her breathing. She shouldn’t still be alive. But no one seems to have gotten that through the baby who is surviving against all the odds.

Her parents Jason Wallace and Crystal Vitelli know that she’s a miracle and a little fighter.

The Globe and Mail quotes her father:

“Kaylee’s a very complex little girl that’s going to make her decision on her terms and nobody else’s,” Mr. Wallace said.

“When you stop breathing when you’re sleeping 100 times an hour, it’s not compatible with life. But she’s showing everybody else, ‘I am compatible with life.’”

Then there is little Lillian, the baby that needs a heart. It was expected that she would today have a healthy heart beating in her tiny chest but the miracle of a child not ready to die occurred.

Lillian O’Connor who now lays in a hospital bed in the balance. The one-year-old needs a heart. She’s back on the Trillium Gift of Life Network’s transplant waiting list.

Her parents are glad for the Wallace family.

The Globe and Mail reports:

“I’m glad we met Jason and his family,” Mr. O’Connor said. “It’s not over for them, it’s definitely not over for us. …. Being offered that gift is more than anybody here would ever know.”

It’s down to just weeks or months for little Lillian who is dying from truncus arteriosus, which means her heart can’t get enough oxygen to her body.

As the miracle continues to play out the ethics of donation after cardiac (DCD) death is again being brought into question. There are times that a heart does not beat but there is brain activity. Which one cancels the other out? When is death really death.

When does death happen is being called into question and are people who could be saved being used as donors before their due date is up?

In Canada that question has been in play since February 2005 when a national forum consensus said that the nation should resume harvesting organs under DCD in addition to NDD (Neurological Determination of Death). That decision could increase organ donation by 20 per cent.

Before DCD can take place the patient needs to have a non-recoverable injury or illness, dependence on life-sustaining therapy, intention to take the patient off of life support and anticipation of imminent death after withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy.

On Tuesday night those qualifiers were in place when the infants were taken to the operating room and a miracle occurred.

In Canada there were 4,380 in 2008 waiting an organ to stay alive. Since that time 215 died before an organ could be found.

The wait for an organ is long. Those needing a kidney on average have three years to wait in Alberta and 8 years in Toronto.

Canada does not have an opt out policy that some countries have. In Europe it’s assumed you want to donate an organ unless you have said you don’t. In Canada the opposite is assumed.


“The most important step is to have a discussion with your immediate family,” George Marcello, who is alive because of a liver donation told CBC News. “They’re the ones that are going to be approached, and it will probably be during a tragic time, and they have to be as prepared as possible to say yes [to donating your organs] … and if they’re not prepared, they’re probably going to say no.”

“We have to reform our system because our system isn’t friendly and Canadians lead very busy lives … you might put it off and you might not ever get around to having that discussion with your family.”

Some also are questioning the ethics of this story being taken to the media. The Canadian Press reports:

“These are not the kinds of decisions that have to be taken in the newspapers,” says Trudo Lemmens, a professor of health law and bioethics at the University of Toronto.

“I guess one of the things you could ask is: Is having this media frenzy around this (case), is it a sufficient respect for that baby’s life and death?” wonders ethicist Margaret Somerville.

It is very rare for the names of donors to be listed on the news. The parents in this case went public. But that is the exception. Generally those who receive the gift of life do not know who saved them.

Still this is a special case.

Miracles are rare. They give hope. And little Kaylee is certainly a miracle.

Stem Cells May Increase Boob Size

The future of beauty may be coming from Britain by way of Japan. Researchers have found a way to increase a lady’s breast while at the same time decreasing her waistline.
Researchers in the United Kingdom may have come up with a winning formula using stem cells to increase breast size. Already in trial use for breast cancer patients the process may soon be available for the mainstream.

The new treatment takes stem cells from spare fat on the stomach or thigh and then growing them in the woman’s breast. Surgeons who have used the method report a more natural look than synthetic implants.

The stem cells, once removed by spare fat on the woman’s body are isolated using equipment owned by GE Healthcare. The concentrated stem cells are then mixed with another batch of fat and then injected into the breast.

The process doesn’t make for an overnight change as it takes several months to achieve the desired shape and size.

There is a problem. The new process will only increase the breast up one cup size. Don’t worry ladies, researchers are burning the midnight oil in order to give you a natural HH cup in the future.

About a dozen British women have underwent the process after having cancerous cells removed. In May ten ladies will be going through the process who do not have breast cancer.

It is thought that by the end of the year the process will be ready for private patients. The estimated cost is around £6,500 says Professor Kefah Mokbel, a consultant breast surgeon at the London Breast Institute at the Princess Grace hospital.

The Daily Mail reports:

‘This is a very exciting advance in breast surgery,’ Mokbel said. ‘Breasts treated with stem cells feel more natural because this tissue has the same softness as the rest of the breast..

‘Implants are a foreign body. They are associated with long-term complications and require replacement. They can also leak and cause scarring.’

‘We are optimistic we can easily achieve an increase of one cup size,’ he said. ‘We cannot say yet if we can achieve more. That may depend on the stem cells we can harvest.’

Japanese surgeons have been performing the technique for the past six years.

Using stem cells in healthy women is not without controversy. Some experts are saying that the procedure should stay with breast cancer patients for the time being. Medical bodies have warned that there simply isn’t enough research to deem the technology is safe and effective.

Eva Weiler-Mithoff, a consultant plastic surgeon at Canniesburn hospital in Glasgow, points out that breast cancer patients have regular follow-up appointments that women who just have cosmetic surgery do not. Because of this any complications may be missed in non-cancer patients.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, footing the bill for research

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is trying to find the gene that leads to Parkinson’s disease. His mother has the disease and he found last year that he carries a mutation that shows he is more at risk of developing Parkinson’s.

That knowledge has lead the 35-year-old Brin to want to make a difference in the fight of Parkinson’s disease. He’s putting his money on the table to fund the study, $4 million. The Australian News reports:

“We can make significant progress in understanding Parkinson’s disease if individuals join together and contribute their personal experiences to scientific research,” Mr Brin said.

“Individually, our genes and experiences are lost in a sea of statistical noise. But, taken together they become a high-power lens on our inner workings.”

On Thursday the Sunnyvale-based Parkinson’s Institute and the Michael J. Fox announced that Brin was funding a special study to help in the search of the gene mutations with Parkinson’s disease.

More than 1.5 million Americans live with Parkinson’s, an incurable brain disease. It causes uncontrollable shaking. Generally those who suffer from the disease have their first symptoms after the age of 50.

Brin is funding gene scans for 10,000 Parkinson’s patients at 23andMe Inc. The genetic testing lab was co-founded by Brin’s wife Anne Wojcicki. 23andMe has a simple mission, to be the world’s trusted source of personal genetic information.

That funding will enable the lab to study the 10,000 people that is hoped to take part in the research study. The Michael J Fox Foundation is working to recruit the test subjects. Once the 10,000 are found they will be able to have their DNA analyzed and then compared to healthy controls.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation reports:

“Exploring the potential of a Web-based approach to patient engagement for research purposes is well-aligned with our Foundation’s mission,” said Katie Hood, CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Both the Foundation and 23andMe are undertaking a research project that could in time be the start of several types of research bases. All of this is coming from the private sector instead of the general academic world of research.

ABC reports:

“We just felt the research was advancing too slowly and in reality, to make significant discoveries in health care, it’s a data problem and we don’t have enough data,” says Anne Wojcicki, from 23andMe.

It is hoped that the study will discover the genetic variations that are commonly associated with those who have the disease.


“So once we find out why some people are susceptible to getting Parkinson’s, we can learn more about what factors may actually cause that Parkinson’s to develop,” says Melanie Brandabur, M.D., the clinic director of the Parkinson’s Institute.

Because of the funding patients will only have to pay $25 for the scan. The usual cost of such extensive scanning costs $399. For the fee those involved with the study will also know matching it to the likelihood of developing 105 diseases. The small fee also will ensure that those involved with the study have an interest in the outcome.

Says Ms. Wojcicki:

“We want to screen individuals who take an interest, so having some sort of barrier where they pay a nominal amount should weed out the individuals who just pick it up because it’s free,” she said. “We want to make sure it’s a community of individuals who are really vested.

“Basic discoveries can definitely lead to new treatments, and we hope any information we find gets used for new therapies.

“Secondly, if there is a genetic component to Parkinson’s, nothing is more profitable to individuals than helping out their children.”

The study is not like most clinical studies. First of all the company is not a standard research lab. Participant driven research is a new way to look at a disease. First off those in the study will be receiving information on their DNA. It will allow academic scientists to ethically obtain DNA research while those in the study also have a gain. A win-win combination.

Any discoveries from this study will be made available to other researchers

Michael J. Fox Is The Optimist

Michael J. Fox has been off the air for a while dealing with Parkinson’s Disease and his foundation for the disease. He’s back though on ABC exploring the nature of optimism.
Fox will be exploring not only his own life but science as well. reports:

“For everything this disease has taken, something with greater value has been given,” Fox says. “It may be one step forward and two steps back, but after a time with Parkinson’s I’ve learned that what is important is making that one step count.”

Fox traveled to Bhutan in the Himalayan mountains to visit with the people. He said that the nation is unusually committed to the well-being of its citizens. The government even monitors its people with a Gross National Happiness program.

Michael J. Fox: Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist airs in the US in May.

Personally the star is having a great time with life. He and wife Tracy Pollan have been together for more than 20 years. At the start of his disease Fox admits there were a few rocky patches. He has advice on how to keep a marriage going.

“Here’s the thing with Tracy and me: We like focusing more on the comedy and less on the drama. The secret to a good marriage, as far as I am concerned, is a joke I make: Keep the fights clean and the sex dirty. Tracy and I are taken aback sometimes when people come up to us and give me this sad moon face and then they give Tracy a hug, and say, ‘You are so strong.’ We roll our eyes at each other, because we are having a really good time.”

Fox was diagnosed in 1991 but didn’t reveal his condition until 1998. From that time period he has been committed to campaigning for increased Parkinson’s research.

Fox has a book coming out in 2009 titled, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist as a follow up to his 2002 memoir Lucky Man.

Fox is very involved with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. He is very happy with the steps that President Obama has recently forged with stem cell research. Overturning the ban of the research offers hope to those suffering from the disease.

“Today is a new day. I could not be more thrilled to see President Obama live up to his commitment to get politics out of science. We have seen, for the past eight years, how much damage the opposite approach has done to science and patients. Now that the President has taken this critical action, I am excited by the prospect of American scientists carrying human embryonic stem cell research forward toward better treatments and cures that will affect countless millions of lives.

“I commend the President for recognizing the inherent value of scientific freedom, and for helping to create an environment in which it can flourish.”

In February the foundation awarded approximately $1.9 million total to six teams that are developing neuroimaging technologies that would allow scientists to non-invasively visualize the clumping of the alpha-synuclein protein in the living human brain. The funding was provided by one of the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s supporters, The Edmond J. Safra Foundation in memory of its founder, Mr. Edmond J. Safra.

The research that is being funded is as follows:

Development and Screening of Contrast Agents for In Vivo Imaging of PD

Brian Bacskai, PhD, and Pamela McLean, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard Medical School), Boston, Massachusetts

Utility of the Amyloid Ligand [18F] FDDNP in Human PET Imaging in Parkinson’s Disease

Yvette Bordelon, MD, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles

18F-labeled Alpha-Synuclein Ligands for PET Imaging of Lewy Bodies

Franz Hefti, PhD, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Alan Snow, PhD, ProteoTech, Inc., Seattle, Washington

Generation of Alpha-Synuclein Conformation-specific Aptamers for In Vivo Bioimaging of Alpha-Synuclein Pathology
Poul Henning Jensen, MD, PhD, University of Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark

A Strategy to Develop a Radiotracer Targeting Alpha-Synuclein

Kenneth Marek, MD, Institute for Neurodegenerative Disorders, New Haven, Connecticut, and Omar El-Agnaf, PhD, United Arab Emirates University

In Vivo SPECT Imaging of Synuclein Aggregation with Morphology-specific Antibody-based Ligands

Michael Sierks, PhD, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

US Company Set For Summer Stem Cell Study

Geron Corp. has been given the thumbs up to go forward on a study of stem cells and spinal injuries by the federal government.

This week the company was granted permission to inject up to ten patients with stem cells obtained from embryonic cells. The test group will be paraplegics who can’t walk but have arm movement. Doctors will be looking for movement in the legs or sensations returning.

The study will begin this summer.

In other nations stem cell research has taken place but this will be a first in the United States. Doctors have long wanted to further research the use of stem cells in the human body. Human embryonic cells can be used to make any cell in the body. Research has been stilted though because to obtain such cells an embryo has to be destroyed. reports:

“It’s a milestone, and it’s a breakthrough for the field because Geron passed the safety hurdles for getting federal clearance to launch the study,” said Ed Baetge, chief scientific officer of Novocell Inc.

Researchers From Northeastern Ignore Privacy Issues To Conduct Cell Phone Study

Researchers in the United States secretly tracked the locations of 100,000 people by their cell phones outside of the country. They were able to conclude that most people stayed within miles of their home. But did their study skirt ethical boundaries?

The study by Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts has raised both privacy and ethical questions by using monitoring methods that are illegal in the United States.

The researchers are not disclosing which nation that they tracked cell phone calls and text messages for a period of six months.

A second phase of the study used 206 cell phones that had tracking devices. Those tracking devices sent information to the researchers every two hours for a week’s time period.

The university used phone records from an undisclosed private company.

Co-author of the study Cesar Hidalgo says that the research team did not know who the individuals were in the study. The physics researcher said that numbers were disguised into “ugly” 26-digit-and-letter codes.

The research would have been illegal in the United States because of privacy laws according to Rob Kenny of the Federal Communications Commission. While consensual tracking is legal and offered as a special feature by some United States cell companies non consensual tracking without a warrant is illegal.

The study was published on Thursday by the journal Nature. It draws attention to the emerging issue of locational privacy.

“This is a new step for science,” said study co-author Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, director of Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research. “For the first time we have a chance to really objectively follow certain aspects of human behavior.”

Barabasi said that he struggled with the issue of privacy during half of his time working on the research. They had a total of 6 million phone numbers that they narrowed down to 100,000 at random to add an extra layer of anonymity for the research subjects. According to the researchers they were not able to say where the subjects they were studying were precisely. That said, they were able to know their location within a matter of blocks or miles from the cell phone tower that was relaying the calls.

Barabasi said that the researchers did not bother to check with any ethics panels while they were doing their research. The belief that because they were conducting physics not biological research made that requirement not needed in their ideals. They may have not been allowed to conduct their study had they gone to the ethics panel believes Arthur Caplan a bio-ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There is plenty going on here that sets off ethical alarm bells about privacy and trustworthiness,” Caplan said.

Studies done on normal behavior at public places is “fair game for researchers” as long as no one can figure out identities, Caplan said in an e-mail.

“So if I fight at a soccer match or walk through 30th Street train station in Philly, I can be studied,” Caplan wrote. “But my cell phone is not public. My cell phone is personal. Tracking it and thus its owner is an active intrusion into personal privacy.”

While Hidalgo admits that in the wrong hands this type of information could be misused he insists that in the hands of scientists it can be used for good.

We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better.”

Knowing people’s travel patterns can help design better transportation systems and give doctors guidance in fighting the spread of contagious diseases, he said.

For at least six months of the year most who use a cell phone remain within a 20 mile radius of their homes. It also revealed that less than 1 percent of the population studied went beyond a 621-mile radius from their homes.

What do you think? If the research obtained was from the cell phone company that you use would you be outraged? Do you think that the researchers have used the shield of research as a way to skirt the laws that are used to protect the citizens from privacy crimes?