The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

by jeremy on June 5, 2008

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ranti June 5, 2008 at 9:24 pm

I just finished Barabasi’s book a few days ago. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means. It’s a fascinating book about network patterns.

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CA Hidalgo June 13, 2008 at 3:32 am
Jeremy Wagstaff June 13, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Thanks, Cesar. Frankly, I can’t really see the privacy issues here, if the data is anonymous and aggregated. But clearly some people feel aggrieved by it. And, it seems, cellular operators are aware of the sensitivity of such data to not release it easily.

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Cassandra Turner November 8, 2008 at 1:41 am

It doesn’t surprise me that humans are such creatures of habit. I’ve also heard that companies will begin to record the sounds around us (tv, movies, commercials) to get a better idea of the products we might be interested in. For instance, we’d hear an ad for a movie, then go watch that movie. It’s getting a bit scary out there.

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Ed June 19, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Amazing how the human race actually got out of Africa then!

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