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?