Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cellphone Data Track Our Migration Patterns

Fascinating story highlighting the efficacy and ease of using available data, as well as its dangers and potential abuses. I particularly enjoy that the focal point is Flushing.

The one stat that jumps out at me is how significant the percentage of calls to Porto, Portugal is: 9% of calls from Flushing.

Cellphone users are spiders of the electromagnetic spectrum, spinning intricate, invisible threads of data about themselves as they walk and talk throughout the day.

Physicists, urban planners and social scientists are eagerly weaving millions of these electronic threads into patterns of people on the move, through studies that until now were all but impossible.

What makes things possible is that all calls are in the phone companies records: number dialing, number called, minutes spoken. The phone company also knows who owns the calling number, and might known the called number, too.

More than 3.3 billion wireless-phone subscribers world-wide have, in effect, voluntarily adopted devices that record their daily movements in the same way satellite sensors monitor migrating birds, whales, bears and other wildlife. Such precise positioning data, automatically collected by cellphone companies, makes privacy advocates queasy but has social scientists dazzled by the research possibilities.

3.3 billion people voluntarily, perhaps unknowingly or oblivious or indifferent to the consequences of their calling habits being known, allow their privacy to be available. It does, surely, also provide intriguing possibilities.

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