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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You're not so special, cell phone tracking reveals

In the future our actions will be anticipated not by mutant "precogs," as described in Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report," but by our mobile devices. In fact, researchers are sort of pretty much doing that now, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Following last week's freakout over the not-so-surprising revelation that Apple and Google Android mobile devices both store our locations and transmit that info back to the tech giants, the WSJ details how scientists are using mobile phone to chart what people will do next. For all our not-unreasonable fears that our individual patterns are easily tracked, and thus abused by scammers, stalkers and even divorce lawyers, our behavior is also easily predicted because we are so much alike.
[Through] cellphone research projects, scientists are able to pinpoint "influencers," the people most likely to make others change their minds. The data can predict with uncanny accuracy where people are likely to be at any given time in the future. Cellphone companies are already using these techniques to predict—based on a customer's social circle of friends—which people are most likely to defect to other carriers.   
A wave of ambitious social-network experiments is underway in the U.S. and Europe to track our movements, probe our relationships and, ultimately, affect the individual choices we all make.
The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus, research shows.
"Phones can know," Dr. Pentland, director of MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory, told the WSJ. "People can get this god's-eye view of human behavior."
Here's some of the research currently underway:
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "Scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn't know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick."
"At Northeastern University in Boston, network physicists discovered just how predictable people could be by studying the travel routines of 100,000 European mobile-phone users. After analyzing more than 16 million records of call date, time and position, the researchers determined that, taken together, people's movements appeared to follow a mathematical pattern. The scientists said that, with enough information about past movements, they could forecast someone's future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy."
At Harvard University, mobile phone data is used "to study how diseases, behavior and ideas spread through social networks, and how companies can use these webs of relationships to influence drug marketing and health-care decisions." This work focuses on "social contagion — the idea that our relationships with people around us, which are readily mapped through cellphone usage, shape our behavior in sometimes unexpected ways." The study reveals that "is contagious. So is loneliness."
Universities aren't the only organizations taking a scientific look at behavior patterns seen through mobile phone use. Every bit of information gleaned from cell phone use is another data point to be used by marketers.
"We can quantify human movement on a scale that wasn't possible before," Nathan Eagle, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, told the WSJ. (He works with 220 mobile-phone companies in 80 countries.) "I don't think anyone has a handle on all the ramifications."
An Associated Press story about how smartphone users have to balance privacy vs. convenience in wake of revelations, will only add to your paranoia:
The government prohibits telephone companies from sharing customer data, including location information, with outside parties without first getting the customer's consent. But those rules don't apply to Apple and other phone makers. Nor do they apply to the new ecosystem of mobile services offered through those apps made by third-party developers.
What's more, because those rules were written for old-fashioned telephone service, it's unclear whether they apply to mobile broadband service at all — even for wireless carriers that are also traditional phone companies, like AT&T Inc. and Verizon.

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