The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

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

Bluetooth Tracking

morning rush hour

Research from Purdue University shows that Bluetooth would be a very good way to track travel time. Bluetooth devices give off unique IDs which could be used to measure speed and movement of pedestrians and vehicles.

But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be possible to track people via their Bluetooth signal, if you knew one of their device IDs? Anyway, here’s the abstract (thanks, Roland.)

Travel time is one of the most intuitive and widely understood performance measures. However, it is also one of the most difficult performance measures to accurately estimate. Toll tag tracking has demonstrated the utility of tracking electronic fingerprints to estimate link travel time. However, these devices have a small penetration outside of areas served by toll facilities, and the proprietary tag reading equipment is not widely available. This paper reports on tracking of a wide variety of consumer electronics that already contain unique digital fingerprints.

Method uses ‘Bluetooth’ to track travel time for vehicles, pedestrians

Bye Bye, Laptop?

image

The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

image

The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

image

Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Cellphone Virus Hype Podcast

Cellphone viruses: hype or hellish new threat – a podcast I recorded for the BBC World Service Business Daily.

If you want to subscribe to an RSS feed of this podcast you can do so here, or it can be found on iTunes. My Loose Wire column for The Wall Street Journal Asia and WSJ.com, can be found here (subscription only; sorry.)

Thanks for listening, and comments, as ever, welcome.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.
Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741
East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Bluetooth’s Missing Suitcase

image

Remember when Samsonite launched the Bluetooth suitcase? No, well, that’s not surprising, because they didn’t. This week’s WSJ.com column is (subscription only, I’m afraid) the first in a series about finding stuff in the real world. I started with a hunt for the Bluetooth suitcase, first announced in 2002 (and weirdly, still up on the Samsonite website):

I got all excited five years ago when Samsonite announced a suitcase that used Bluetooth, a wireless technology more commonly used to connect cellphones to headsets, to carry data about the owner and alert him or her if the case was moved. Hooray, I thought: Now we’ll all know where our luggage is. Unfortunately not: The Samsonite Hardlite never saw the light of day for technical reasons, although the company says it’s still looking at other ways to identify and secure luggage.

This is about as close as we came to the idea that the wireless technologies we now take for granted — Bluetooth, WiFi, infrared, cellphones, GPS — would actually help us stay in touch with the important things in life, like our stuff. Which is a shame. I would love to be able to ping all the Bluetooth gadgets in my house via my cellphone and know where they are. One Bluetooth headset has been missing for years.

I then take a look at what’s available. But what intrigued me was: what happened to the Samsonite case? This is what Samsonite PR came up with:

It seems from what I can gather this collection was in the end not launched. The reasons seem to be quite numerous – the cost to the consumer would have been significant, a lot of mobile phones were not compatible with the technology at the time, and today would still require additional memory.

Another person I contacted had this to say:

Basically the project did not make it to the market because of several reasons.

About 10 pieces were made for field testing, but there were issues on the standardisation. At the time Bluetooth technology was still at an early development stage and not yet standardised, so for a product to be able to ‘talk’ to another wasn’t that straight forward and obvious. Therefore after the field testing it was decided that the benefits for the consumer just weren’t sufficient. At the moment there are no plans to resurrect the project.

Which I found interesting. To me, back in 2002, the suitcase made all sorts of sense. Bluetooth, cellphones, missing suitcases: who wouldn’t have gone for something like that? But Bluetooth has always been a bit of a devil when it comes to anything other than really basic connectivity. Even Mac users have been heard to complain of connecting Bluetooth devices to their laptops.

Would today’s Bluetooth be able to cope with with this kind of concept now? Is it already doing so? Or would security concerns — how long would it take before someone puts together software to reprogram the data on a Samsonite suitcase so it gets diverted to Luang Prabang?

What Probably Won’t Happen in 2007

The BBC has asked me to make some predictions about the coming year, something I’m always loath to do because I seem to get it wrong. Anyway, here are my notes. They’re based in part on my own bath-time musings, and partly inspired by the thoughts of others (tried to credit them where relevant.)

1999 just took longer than we thought, that’s all

Web 2.0 is not just about AJAX, mashups, blogs and all that. It’s about building a platform. That’s now been done. All we need to do now is let people use it. That is already happening, but it will REALLY happen in 2007:

Delivery will get better

RSS will stop being something we have to keep explaining to people, because they’ll be using it. It will be seamless — a way for anyone to join something, whether it’s a newsletter, a service, a MySpace group. It will stop being known as Rich Site Syndication or Really Simple Syndication and be Really Simple, Stupid.

Content will get better

The real improvement in computers will be the rise of the dual- and four-core processor, i.e. one that uses more than one chip. Think of it as the computer having more than one brain. This will speed up, and make easier, the editing of video and other multimedia content. Our computer, in a word, will no longer be an expensive typewriter. With faster connection speeds, too, video will be the thing that really makes the Internet compelling to people who were previously uninterested. What we watch on YouTube will get better. Individuals will have their 15 megabytes of fame. But this will couple with a rise of content generated specifically for the Internet, further blurring the lines between TV and computer viewing. Silicon Valley is no longer a tech center, but a media one.

The demise of big software

The rise of online applications will in turn blur the distinction between what is going on in your computer and what is going on at the other end of the line — the server. Vista will seem more like a farewell than a big hello, as big software from big companies locking in users to specific ways of doing things will give way to open source alternatives like Ubuntu. Microsoft will fight this tooth and nail, but I’m sure they already know it.

The mainstreaming of social media

 Web 2.0 is really all about breaking down barriers by making it easier to do stuff, and to mix it up with other people doing stuff. In a way what the Internet has always been about. Expect the influence of blogs to further pervade those last few citadels that have been resisting it, breaking down walls within organizations — internal blogs that flatten hierarchies and build up feedback mechanisms for employees to talk back to their bosses. Think government departments. Think universities, schools and anywhere else where hierarchies exist. This won’t be a one way street: anonymous bloggers in places like Microsoft and China may find themselves outed and lynched.

The rise of the maven

As the Web gets bigger, Google will need to reinvent itself to keep up. Web 2.0 offers some great ways to find stuff through other means, leveraging the knowledge of others who have gone before. We will acknowledge the contribution, and marketers will acknowledge the power, of the maven: the person who seems to somehow know stuff, and is ready to share it. Tagging, blogging, and other social tools will be recognized as extremely powerful ways to do this.

The demise of the big computer

The cellphone will get better at what it does, and we’ll grow to trust it more. We’ll stop calling it a cellphone and just call it a wearable device, or something snazzier I can’t think of right now. One day we’ll think it quaint that we had to sit in one place to do stuff, or near an outlet, or within range of a WiFi signal. Cellphones don’t have those limitations and this will start to hit home in 2007:

Teenagers will show us the way. Again

They’re already sharing everything via Bluetooth, creating networks on the fly (that, incidentally, fly under the radars of commercial networks and marketers). They share videos, ringtones, songs, games, either by exchanging content or playing against each other.

Space-shifting

The cellphone has already redefined what space is, and that will continue. Sexual liaisons involving public figures will be recorded by one party as insurance against future hard times. Cellphone television will become more popular, not just because it’s mobile but because it’s personal, a time to be alone under the sheets, on a bus, waiting for a friend, stuck in traffic. Maybe not this year, but soon they’ll be pluggable into the hotel TV. This is tied into the idea of personal space being something you control, either through presence, or through intermediary services where you only ever hand out personal details of your virtual self.

The End of the iPod

The iPod will decline in importance as the music-phone takes center stage. I didn’t think this would happen because cellphone manufacturers mess up the software on the phone, but they’re getting better at it. Even Nokia. So expect most people, starting with teenagers who don’t want more than one gadget and probably can’t afford them, to switch to one device. This will again throw open the mobile music/MP3/DRM debate, and iTunes will start to look a bit wobbly until Apple gets something sorted out so non-iPod users can download from the site easily and cheaply.

The downsides

It’s not all fun and games. Bad things are going to continue to happen, and there’s not much we can do about them. It’s partly just the normal process of utopians being pushed aside by realists, but it’s also about an ongoing debate about how to, or whether to, police a space that seems largely unpoliceable.

A dual identity crisis

Mainstream media’s identity crisis will be compounded by an identity crisis among bloggers. The rise of pay-me blogging, where bloggers get paid for writing about specific companies or products, will lead to some scandals and make people explore more deeply the ethics of blogging, and how they’re not that much different to the ethics developed by journalists over several hundred years. This won’t however, lead to the demise of blogging, but the rise of a sort of online press corps, with its own associations and rules, both written and unwritten. Many bloggers will end up being journalists, and the best journalists will move effortlessly and happily through the blogosphere. Many already do.

Keep up, grandma

Things are moving so fast the slow will look like they’re running backwards. If 2004-6 were anything to go by, 2007 will move quite quickly. Some folk I spoke to said that not much has popped up this year that’s exciting, and that’s true, in a boiling frog type way. It’s the earth shifting that is changing, and we need to change with it. Young people just get it, but us digital immigrants need to not just learn the lingo but keep up with the fast-changing slang. Oh, and MySpace won’t be the place to hang out in 2007; it’ll begin to look like a sad school hall dance arranged by the teachers.

The Rise of the Snoop

We tend to make a distinction between these things, but they’re actually all part of the same thing. Spam is getting worse, and it’s not just an invasion of privacy but an invasion of our productivity (91% of email is spam.) Music and video files will also rise as vectors of trojans, malware and other PUPs. GPS devices married to phones will enable people to track their employees, spouses or offspring, and further empower stalkers. Cellphone monitoring devices like FlexiSpy will get better at distributing themselves, and will be powerful not just in the hands of eavesdropping acquaintances but identity thieves. The rise of virtual worlds will also lead to the rise of virtual identities and virtual identity theft, along the lines of CopyBot. Expect to see cellphone eavesdropping and data theft from cellphones to surge. And we’ll start to realize that Google isn’t as cuddly as it looks; it’s a snoop, too.

What Probably Won’t Happen in 2007

The BBC has asked me to make some predictions about the coming year, something I’m always loath to do because I seem to get it wrong. Anyway, here are my notes. They’re based in part on my own bath-time musings, and partly inspired by the thoughts of others.

1999 just took longer than we thought, that’s all

Web 2.0 is not just about AJAX, mashups, blogs and all that. It’s about building a platform. That’s now been done. All we need to do now is let people use it. That is already happening, but it will REALLY happen in 2007:

Delivery will get better

RSS will stop being something we have to keep explaining to people, because they’ll be using it. It will be seamless — a way for anyone to join something, whether it’s a newsletter, a service, a MySpace group. It will stop being known as Rich Site Syndication or Really Simple Syndication and be Really Simple, Stupid.

Content will get better

The real improvement in computers will be the rise of the dual- and four-core processor, i.e. one that uses more than one chip. Think of it as the computer having more than one brain. This will speed up, and make easier, the editing of video and other multimedia content. Our computer, in a word, will no longer be an expensive typewriter. With faster connection speeds, too, video will be the thing that really makes the Internet compelling to people who were previously uninterested. What we watch on YouTube will get better. Individuals will have their 15 megabytes of fame. But this will couple with a rise of content generated specifically for the Internet, further blurring the lines between TV and computer viewing. Silicon Valley is no longer a tech center, but a media one, as Andreas of the Economist told the .

The demise of big software

The rise of online applications will in turn blur the distinction between what is going on in your computer and what is going on at the other end of the line — the server. Vista will seem more like a farewell than a big hello, as big software from big companies locking in users to specific ways of doing things will give way to open source alternatives like Ubuntu. Microsoft will fight this tooth and nail, but I’m sure they already know it.

The mainstreaming of social media

 Web 2.0 is really all about breaking down barriers by making it easier to do stuff, and to mix it up with other people doing stuff. In a way what the Internet has always been about. Expect the influence of blogs to further pervade those last few citadels that have been resisting it, breaking down walls within organizations — internal blogs that flatten hierarchies and build up feedback mechanisms for employees to talk back to their bosses. Think government departments. Think universities, schools and anywhere else where hierarchies exist. This won’t be a one way street: anonymous bloggers in places like Microsoft and China may find themselves outed and lynched.

The rise of the maven

As the Web gets bigger, Google will need to reinvent itself to keep up. Web 2.0 offers some great ways to find stuff through other means, leveraging the knowledge of others who have gone before. We will acknowledge the contribution, and marketers will acknowledge the power, of the maven: the person who seems to somehow know stuff, and is ready to share it. Tagging, blogging, and other social tools will be recognized as extremely powerful ways to do this.

The demise of the big computer

The cellphone will get better at what it does, and we’ll grow to trust it more. We’ll stop calling it a cellphone and just call it a wearable device, or something snazzier I can’t think of right now. One day we’ll think it quaint that we had to sit in one place to do stuff, or near an outlet, or within range of a WiFi signal. Cellphones don’t have those limitations and this will start to hit home in 2007:

Teenagers will show us the way. Again

They’re already sharing everything via Bluetooth, creating networks on the fly (that, incidentally, fly under the radars of commercial networks and marketers). They share videos, ringtones, songs, games, either by exchanging content or playing against each other.

Space-shifting

The cellphone has already redefined what space is, and that will continue. Sexual liaisons involving public figures will be recorded by one party as insurance against future hard times. Cellphone television will become more popular, not just because it’s mobile but because it’s personal, a time to be alone under the sheets, on a bus, waiting for a friend, stuck in traffic. Maybe not this year, but soon they’ll be pluggable into the hotel TV. This is tied into the idea of personal space being something you control, either through presence, or through intermediary services where you only ever hand out personal details of your virtual self.

The End of the iPod

The iPod will decline in importance as the music-phone takes center stage. I didn’t think this would happen because cellphone manufacturers mess up the software on the phone, but they’re getting better at it. Even Nokia. So expect most people, starting with teenagers who don’t want more than one gadget and probably can’t afford them, to switch to one device. This will again throw open the mobile music/MP3/DRM debate, and iTunes will start to look a bit wobbly until Apple gets something sorted out so non-iPod users can download from the site easily and cheaply.

The downsides

It’s not all fun and games. Bad things are going to continue to happen, and there’s not much we can do about them. It’s partly just the normal process of utopians being pushed aside by realists, but it’s also about an ongoing debate about how to, or whether to, police a space that seems largely unpoliceable.

A dual identity crisis

Mainstream media’s identity crisis will be compounded by an identity crisis among bloggers. The rise of pay-me blogging, where bloggers get paid for writing about specific companies or products, will lead to some scandals and make people explore more deeply the ethics of blogging, and how they’re not that much different to the ethics developed by journalists over several hundred years. This won’t however, lead to the demise of blogging, but the rise of a sort of online press corps, with its own associations and rules, both written and unwritten. Many bloggers will end up being journalists, and the best journalists will move effortlessly and happily through the blogosphere. Many already do.

Keep up, grandma

Things are moving so fast the slow will look like they’re running backwards. If 2004-6 were anything to go by, 2007 will move quite quickly. Some folk I spoke to said that not much has popped up this year that’s exciting, and that’s true, in a boiling frog type way. It’s the earth shifting that is changing, and we need to change with it. Young people just get it, but us digital immigrants need to not just learn the lingo but keep up with the fast-changing slang. Oh, and MySpace won’t be the place to hang out in 2007; it’ll begin to look like a sad school hall dance arranged by the teachers.

The Rise of the Snoop

We tend to make a distinction between these things, but they’re actually all part of the same thing. Spam is getting worse, and it’s not just an invasion of privacy but an invasion of our productivity (91% of email is spam.) Music and video files will also rise as vectors of trojans, malware and other PUPs. GPS devices married to phones will enable people to track their employees, spouses or offspring, and further empower stalkers. Cellphone monitoring devices like FlexiSpy will get better at distributing themselves, and will be powerful not just in the hands of eavesdropping acquaintances but identity thieves. The rise of virtual worlds will also lead to the rise of virtual identities and virtual identity theft, along the lines of CopyBot. Expect to see cellphone eavesdropping and data theft from cellphones to surge. And we’ll start to realize that Google isn’t as cuddly as it looks; it’s a snoop, too.

Podcast: The Communicator

A BBC World Service piece I did on the tenacity of a device that perhaps should have been binned long ago:

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Suspected Fraudsters Behind the Sony DRM Virus Arrested

Three men have been arrested in the UK and Finland following an investigation into internet fraud. The three are a motley bunch, according to The Sunday Times: a 63-year-old from England, a 28-year-old from Scotland and a 19-year-old from Finland. Together they are alleged to have formed a gang called M00P. They are accused of being behind a virus known as Ryknos, Breplibot or Stinx-Q, which apparently allowed the gang access to commercial information through a back door. Thousands of computers, most of them in the UK, were infected. Infection here means total control over the computer in question. The virus was first spotted in November 2005.

What’s particularly interesting about this, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the mainstream press, is that the virus used a vulnerability created by Sony’s much despised DRM copy-protection software — a program installed as part of software to play Sony’s CDs on computers, but which would secretly install extra code designed to protect the CD from being copied beyond a limited number of times. The virus basically piggybacked the hole left by Sony’s software, so unless users who had installed Sony’s software had removed it, they were at the virus’ mercy.

The virus was well targeted and used clever social engineering tricks. It was tailored to businesses, disguised as a requested update for a photo attached to an email that read, in part, “Hello, Your photograph was forwarded to us as part of an article we are publishing for our December edition of Total Business Monthly. Can you check over the format and get back to us with your approval or any changes? If the picture is not to your liking then please send a preferred one. We have attached the photo with the article here.” Who’s not going to click on that? I know I nearly did.

If those detained were involved, it’ll be interesting to hear what they’ve got to say about the Sony rootkit (which has long been abandoned. Great piece on the saga by Wade Roush in this month’s Technology Review.