Social science researchers at Northeastern University have published a study of the movements of 100,000 cell phones (and their users) tracked over various time periods, amid howls from academic ethicists. It seems that in some "industrialized country," a cell phone provider was willing to hand over 6 million valid numbers from which the researchers picked 100,000 anonymous ones to follow through the cell relay towers they utilized. Such a study would be illegal in the U.S. according to the Federal Communications Commission.
My partner, who serves on an institutional review board at a major university for just such projects, says it would never have passed muster there. The study raises major concerns about informed consent by subjects (there wasn't any) and possible privacy issues (researchers say they ensured individual privacy.)
Of course the alarm this experiment really rings is a reminder that we voluntarily adopt technologies that provide a constant stream of information about our activities that can be monitored by numerous entities. Every Google search and website click may well be recorded somewhere for advertising and who knows what other purpose. We are constantly photographed by surveillance cameras in public places. And who knows what the government spooks are doing with our information; we know that telecom companies haven't been scrupulous about obeying the law before providing access to the authorities -- that's what the fight about FISA in Congress is about.
There is not much we can do directly about the capacity of various entities to monitor us; we need our internet; we enjoy our techno toys. But we can work to create law that protects privacy and autonomy as much as possible.
Interestingly, the major finding of the controversial study seems to be that most people don't have much range of movement.
When you think about this, it doesn't really seem strange. Presumably most peoples' main locations were home -- and work or school.
But the findings do remind me of the slightly surprising finding election researchers came up with in controlled experiments aimed at increasing voter turnout.
We are very strongly creatures of accustomed place. It's hard to recruit people to work on elections in unaccustomed surroundings. And it turns out that even if you can get them, their effectiveness is not as great as that of locals.
Those cell phone users might not be surprised at this -- they don't go anywhere novel. Why would someone from far away come far to bother them about a candidate? Is such behavior suspicious, or just incomprehensible?
Sometimes I'm amazed that electioneering works at all -- but we keep doing it.