News of a recent study that tracked the movements of cell phone users outside the U.S. has given a fresh case of the creeps to a society that is steadily growing accustomed to the likelihood that their every move is being tracked.
A team of researchers from Northeastern University in Boston, working in conjunction with an unnamed wireless carrier, tracked the movements of 100,000 subscribers using anonymized data from cell phone towers that handled their phone calls and text messages over a six month period. The researchers did not disclose the geographical location from which the data originated.
While the researchers' findings -- that most humans move in regular patterns over short distances -- weren't exactly earth shattering, the study has stoked the debate over the ethical implications of using personal data, even when it's anonymized data.
"One of the central issues around data in our society is that there are places where data has enormous value to researchers, but it's also personal. How to balance the two is the big question," said Bruce Schneier, CTO of BT Counterpane and an advisory board member for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Many of the criticisms leveled at the researchers in the media have centered on the ethical impropriety of using anonymized data. But according to Schneier, clear guidelines have yet to be established around the use of wireless data, so it's difficult to say what course of action the researchers could have taken.
"It sounds like valuable research, and perhaps there is a way that it can be conducted to protect privacy, as is the case with the body of ethical standards that exists around psychological research," Schneier said.
Beth Givens, founder and director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says regardless of the privacy safeguards that were built into the research, and regardless of the societal benefits of the findings, the data subjects should have been asked to give their affirmative consent.
"The research should not have been able to go forward without their 'opt-in,'" Givens said.
The researchers appear to have made some dangerous presumptions in terms of deciding for others whether they should be concerned about the loss of their privacy, says Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco. "This wouldn't be legal in the U.S., the laws are fairly clear about doing that here," he said.
But given the increasing moves by research and marketing interests to find utility in personal data, and the fact that more personal data is being tracked than ever before, Zimmerman expects these types of issues to continue.
"As we get more gadgets that are more trackable, there will be more pressure from people to utilize the value that they see there. The question is, will there be a law to give people a say in how their information is used?" Zimmerman said.