Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More on cell phones as tracking devices

It was this BBC piece on a recent study at Northeastern University that set me musing about tracking via cell phone.

The article is sort of a roller coaster ride of "yikes!":

It would be wonderful if every [mobile] carrier could give universities access to their data because it's so rich

The researchers said they were 'not at liberty' to disclose where the information had been collected.

... giving way to "that's not so bad":

[S]teps had been taken to guarantee the participants' anonymity

[W]e only know the coordinates of the tower routing the communication, hence a user's location is not known within a tower's service area

... and the occasional "hmm ...":

Nokia have put forward an idea to attach sensors to phones that could report back on air quality. The project would allow a large location-specific database to be built very quickly.

Ofcom is also planning to use mobiles to collect data about the quality of wi-fi connections around the UK.

Evidently the business of attaching interesting sensors to cell phones is expected to boom in the next few years.

The real punchline, though, was the unsurprising conclusion that most people's daily activities are pretty boring: "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[.]" Even those that travel further still tend to visit a small number of places repeatedly.

It's natural to be concerned about the ever-increasing speed of communication, and the prospect that at some point everyone might have access to everything known about everyone. But on the other hand it's comforting to know that one's own activities are probably too boring for most people to care about.


Anonymous said...

I like the blog!
Many believe that the main reason that gps tracking system was put into cellular phones was to allow parents to watch where their children are at all times. But the real reason is one that is in much greater demand. It is enhanced 911 or e911 which is emergency phoning abilities; this came into effect after 9/11. The GPS tracking technology was integrated into each cell phone that was manufactured so that by the year 2005, each cell phone on the market would have GPS technology. Each cell phone company had to comply with the new regulations that allow each cell phone to be tracked within one hundred meters or less of a location.

David Hull said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Now that you mention it, I remember e911 going through. From what I can make out, many (most) phones don't actually have integrated GPS units (mine doesn't appear to, for example). Instead, the carriers fulfill the e911 requirements via other means, either by the carefully analyzing propagation delays and other such clues, or via assisted GPS, where (again if I understand correctly) the phone is receiving a signal from the GPS satellite but relying on a the provider for part or all of the processing.

Is that about right?

Either way, the net result is as you say: Thanks to e911, modern phones can be located to within a hundred meters or less. This raises privacy concerns, but then, so does having a phone.

This thread reminds me of a trip to Stockholm in the mid 90s. You could go to the tourist office and rent a little PDA-like thingie that would tell you where you were and what was close to you. It was cute, but the database was sparse, and there either wasn't a "walk me back to the hotel" function or I didn't know how to work it. I ended up following my nose, but thought the concept was interesting.

I like the GPS in my car, but use it mostly to find addresses and for the "beam me up, Scottie" function that will always find my way home. Or at least I hope it will.