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Study secretly tracks cell phone users

Thu Jun 5, 2008 - 2:24 PM EDT - By Dan Nimtz

MSNBC is reporting this story - "Cell phone users outside U.S. secretly tracked". The story reports that 100,000 people (again, to avoid panic here, living outside the USA) had their whereabouts secretly tracked via their cell phone usage. The big news from this study (aside from the privacy and ethical questions it raises) is that most people rarely stray far from home. Nearly 75% of the people tracked stayed mostly within a 20 mile wide circle for the half year covered by the study.

The report does not disclose where the study was performed other than to say it was in an "industrialized nation". Good thing, as I suppose you'd get wildly different results if you were monitoring say a remote tribe's cell phone usage patterns. Hey, that brings up the question - maybe we could have been monitoring Osama bin Laden's cell phone usage to track his whereabouts - oh never mind.

Researchers said that they gathered the data by tracking calls and text messages via cell phone towers for a six month period. They also tracked an additional 206 cell phones via tracking devices in them, and monitored those locations every two hours. An undisclosed private company provided the cell phone records.

Although the study was authored by researchers at Northeastern University, the researchers say they couldn't identify the individual phone numbers since they were disguised.

According to FCC spokesman Rob Kenney, this type of non consensual tracking would be illegal in the United States.

The study's authors say they didn't need to check with any ethics panel prior to the research because they were not required to do so since the experiment involved physics, and not biology. Huh?

The study is to be published Thursday in the journal "Nature". Expect to see considerable flack over this one.

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