100,000 people secretly tracked by their cell phones in the name of scientific research.

A disturbing study from Northeastern University brings the specter of 1984 and Big Brother frighteningly close to home. Albert laszlo Barbasi and a team of researchers have secretly tracked the locations of 100,000 people living outside the U.S. through their mobile phones. They then studied the patterns of their movements. While the conclusions may be interesting the ethics of monitoring people without their consent as was done in this research has been conveniently overlooked from media reporting of this research.

It is extremely disturbing and raises privacy and ethical questions around the methods used in the monitoring its subjects, about how they were selected, and how the research was approved and overseen. The selecting of foreign subjects for research which in the U.S. would be illegal shows the total disregard for not only for the privacy of the individuals involved, but also for the sovereignty and laws of the country from which population studied were selected.

One comment posted to the Journal Nature where this “research” was published had this to say:

“And for you conspiracy/ethics freaks, lighten up, the study wasn’t in this country, the cell company wasn’t known, the 100,000 phones weren’t known, the country wasn’t known, what more do you want?”

or this from the research team: (source AAP report link)

“In the wrong hands the data could be misused,” Hidalgo said. “But in scientists’ hands you’re trying to look at broad patterns…. We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better.” (source AAP report link here)

Somehow this typical response displays the cavalier attitude of some scientists and commentators who can white wash the ethics by using the excuse that U.S. sensibilities were not offended. Obviously for this research to take place someone had access to the underlying private information, and invasion of privacy is invasion of privacy no matter where it occurs.

This study is provocative in more than one sense because it should provoke a healthy discussion about the abuse of human rights in scientific research. It should be the source of discussion and further investigation about the use of taxpayers money for the funding of University research that oversteps the boundaries of ethical behaviour. If this is an example of research at all costs, what other areas of science are using the ploy of research off shore, perhaps in vulnerable developing nations, to override laws designed to protect the public and that prohibit the abuse of human rights.

Additionally, it also focuses on scientific journals that choose to publish research that is obtained in such a questionable manner. I am afraid that there is not enough oversight to the process for me to feel comfortable with such invasive research. It may give interesting insights for those who would like to study human behaviour, but the possibility of abuse puts such research squarely out of step in a free democracy. Totalitarian regimes control and subjugate their people through the use of surveillance, how is this research any different. Oh, sorry, it happened outside the U.S., that makes it different.

It is disappointing that science is being allowed to breach basic ethics of behaviour. What is even worse the perpetrators are being given legitimacy through the publication of their work. Maybe the upside is that the discourse that is necessary can take place. If this does not happen then what is at risk is here is bringing science into disrepute. People are already becoming skeptical about the ethic of scientific research. This latest study only gives emphasis to how science can abuse the system.

It is time that governments were held to account by its citizens for such outrageous abuse of human rights no matter where they occur. A line has been crossed and how this was allowed to happen should be investigated. Thankfully reading the new comments posted on the Nature site this is being discussed in earnest as it should be.

UPDATE: Cesar Hidalgo, one of the researchers has come out to say that yes, they had approval for their study and this:

“It is sad however to see that because of some sensationalists journalists the discussion has shifted away from the science and into a tabloid like rhetoric.”

Well, as a member of the world population outside the US, I for one am not interested in “the Science” that invades my privacy for whatever reason and by whatever approval!. It is time to question the rarefied bastions of science, who consider themselves above valid criticism. Unfortunately for us, our consent is obviously second class to that of a US citizen. I am sure no US citizen would put up with this why should we.

Read more at the Nature link here:

AAP article discusses the legal ramifications. Linked above.


The Asgard Range divides the Wright Valley from the Taylor Glacier and Taylor Valley in Victoria Land, Antarctica.

The Asgard Range.

Photograph by: Tracy Szela, National Science Foundation. Date Taken: November 22, 2005.

~ by abstraktbiblos on Friday, 6 June, 2008.

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