Ends, means, and cell phone surveillance

As Wired.com reports, researchers affiliated with Northeastern University “secretly tracked the locations of 100,000 people outside the United States through their cell phone use and concluded that most people rarely stray more than a few miles from home.” In the report on their study in the journal Nature (excerpt available online), the authors stated:

[O]ur understanding of the basic laws governing human motion remains limited owing to the lack of tools to monitor the time-resolved location of individuals. Here we study the trajectory of 100,000 anonymized mobile phone users whose position is tracked for a six-month period.

There’s no doubt that such a study is useful.  As one of the researchers noted, “[k]nowing people’s travel patterns can help design better transportation systems and give doctors guidance in fighting the spread of contagious diseases.”  Important and useful.

But information’s usefulness does not alone justify its acquisition.  What about privacy and ethics? This isn’t simply a study of aggregate data (such as how many people saw Iron Man), but rather a study of the specific movements of numerous individuals.  As noted in the New York Times, “The location of the user was revealed whenever he made or received a call or text message; the telephone company would record the nearest cell tower and time.”

So was an ethics panel consulted?  No.  According to Wired, one of the researchers stated no ethics panel was consulted, and another said they didn’t have to (a quote here, but apparently a paraphrase in Wired) “because the experiment involved physics, not biology.”

Say what?  Ok, so the study concerned the movement of people.  People are objects.  Physics studies the movement of objects.  I get the “physics” connection. But how does that justify tracking individuals’ cellphones and movements without their permission? Although the researchers took steps to anonymize and secure the data, how does that justify intrusions into the personal activities of 100,000 people?

According to Wired, FCC spokesman Rob Kenny stated that such unconsented tracking would be illegal if done inside the United States.  Instead, says the New York Times, the surveillance was done with the cooperation of an unnamed European cell phone provider.  But why should it be ok for an American university to go outside of the United States to do what would be illegal within?

Courtrooms, Razrs, and ringtones


New Year’s Resolution: catching up on my blogging. Along those lines, my St. Thomas colleague Fred Light brought to my attention last term to an interesting administrative order from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The order, entitled In re: Cellular Phone and Electronic Equipment Usage in the Courthouse, addresses legitimate concerns over the presence and use of cell phones — and particularly camera phones — in the courtroom. It designates persons who can bring cell or camera phones to court but warns that “[n]o cellular phones of any kind may be used in a courtroom or jury deliberations room and no photographs of any kind may be taken in any federal courthouse facility.” Penalties for violations include 30 days in jail and/or a fine of $5000 and/or punishment for contempt of court.

Woe to the first person in a Miami courtroom whose Motorola Razr blares out Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as a ringtone.

Thanks to dreamingyakker at Flickr, who licensed the photo through this Creative Commons license.

The electronic leash: whatever happened to trusting your kids?

Verizon Wireless now offers a service that allows parents to track their kids’ movements through cellphones. According to News.com:

Parents can use the service to set up geographic limits and receive text alerts if their children, who also carry phones, go too far from home. The service also lets parents check where their offspring are via a map on their cell phone or computer.

The service — “Chaperone” for location tracking, and “Child Zone” for a boundary-setting add-on — is available for now only on a four-button phone designed for young kids, such as 5-9 year olds. (Who buys a phone for a 5 year old?) But News.com indicates that Verizon Wireless might develop a version of the program for older kids, with more sophisticated phones.

What a great way to train kids for a lifetime of submitting to technological surveillance from authorities. If you really want to be creeped out, go here on the Verizon Wireless site and watch the animated cartoon family whose kids cheerily acquiesce to their parents spying on them.

Whatever happened to trusting kids and letting them make decisions (and letting them learn to live with the consequences)?

And to be clear, I am a parent.

Thanks to Slashdot, where I first read about this.