Researchers secretly track 100,000 cell phone users

| 6/6/2008

A first-of-its-kind study tracked the movements of about 100,000 cell phone users, who were selected at random from 6 million users.

The New York Times reported that researchers from Northeastern University in Boston were able to obtain the data from a European provider of cell phone service.

During a six-month period, people’s locations were pinpointed whenever they made or received a cell phone call or sent a text message. The researchers say they discovered that most of the people studied seldom moved outside a 20-mile-wide circle of their homes.

If people’s wanderings could be analyzed, the results could be used to create computer models for understanding emergency response, urban planning and the spread of disease, said the authors, whose work has been published in the journal “Nature.”

That kind of study would be illegal in the U.S, and critics have pointed out serious ethical issues as well.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Times that researchers are generally free to observe people in public places without getting permission from them or review from institutional ethics boards.

However, Caplan said, “your cell phone is not something I would consider a public entity.”