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?