Mobile spyware generates incredibly useful data, but will people stand for it?

big_brotherHere’s an interesting story. Way back in 2004, two researchers at MIT announced a new kind of cellphone. This phone would monitor you constantly, recording and learning from everything you did. By constantly tracking your location, your friends locations and your communications, it would learn the things you do every day, including when and where you did them, and who you do them with. Things have changed in the five years since then. The service has been transformed from an actual device into “logging software” – and the first results from a study using it have now been released. It makes for pretty interesting reading.

Dr. Nathan Eagle is the man in charge of the study, which was published through the National Academy of Sciences. Since 2004, he has moved from MIT to the Santa Fe Institute – and plans to do further studies in Finland. He told the BBC that the study placed the spyware in Nokia 6600s, which were given to volunteers, and observed the results. They determined that your mobile device can keep much better track of your life than you can. The main findings, as reported, were:

- Most people hugely over-estimate the amount of time they spend with friends. They also under-estimate the amount of time spent with people they wouldn’t regard as friends.
- Using only data gathered from the devices, the researchers were able to determine with 95% accuracy if two users were friends. This was based solely on phonecall records and the proximity of the users.
- People who have friends near where they work tend to be happier. People who regularly call their friends while at work tend to be less satisfied with their jobs.

The important thing to remember is that this is really just a taster of what the software can provide. This study comprised a truly tiny test-group – only 94 people. It also focused on light sociological matters. The applications of the software are much wider than that. Here’s an example from Dr. Eagle: “we were capturing data when the Red Sox won the [baseball championship] World Series for the first time. Suddenly all our subjects became unpredictable; they all flooded into downtown Boston to a rally in the centre of the city. City planners approached us because they wanted to know how people were using urban infrastructure, to know when the people left the rally, how many walked across the bridge and how many took the subway, how many biked or took the bus. We can give them some real insight with the idea of helping them build a better city that reflects people’s actual behaviour.”

There are already plans for future studies. The actual software this runs on was developed in Finland at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology – so the next implementation will be a study based on 1,000 volunteers in Finland. And there are plans afoot for a large study in Kenya.

What we think?

3409012-i-think-i-m-being-watched-0This does highlight two important facts. First, people often don’t really pay attention to what they do during the day, or else they lie about it when asked by men with clipboards. This is a known problem with self-reported surveys, and it has been bothering sociologists for decades. Second, hard data collected from mobile devices can provide the kind of important data that people themselves don’t notice or don’t remember. I hesitate to call this “news”, as it doesn’t really present anything new. But as mentioned in the piece, this was a truly tiny implementation of the study. 94 people is nothing. The 1,000 person study in Finland might throw out some more interesting results. City planners, media buyers and anyone else who needs to know how people behave would benefit hugely from the kind of data provided by “uber-spyware”.

But there’s something I want to mention first. The head of the study himself, Dr. Nathan Eagle, called this “UBER-SPYWARE“. That really says all you need to know. People don’t like being spied on. They might volunteer to be part of a study if they’re well-appraised about it beforehand. But this kind of deep invasion would not be accepted by the public. Just look at the recent outcry when it was claimed the Pre was sending GPS and app-usage data back to Palm. People were incensed by this… and it was only broadcasting once per day, not constantly like this study. This level of invasiveness on the part of a mobile device would cause people to stop using it.

It’s a terrible conundrum, really. Having truly accurate information on people would help with so many different fields. Disease control, traffic management, public transport… the applications are pretty much endless. And the very ubiquity of mobile phones makes that kind of data gathering possible. But in order to do it, you need to use “uber-spyware” – this kind of thing is fine for once-off studies. But the kind of real-time info that the Boston City Planners wanted would require a much more permanent and wide-scale implementation. And people will not stand for being watched like that. No one wants someone looking over their shoulder 24 hours a day.

Via BBC News

About Cian O' Sullivan

Ace reporter, Cian, has moved on from GoMo News. He is currently the office manager for Photocall Ireland - Ireland's premier news and PR photography agency. You can check out the site at If you want to contact him directly about anything, Cian's new email is cian at photocallireland dot com.
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One Response to Mobile spyware generates incredibly useful data, but will people stand for it?

  1. Pingback: 99 Must Read Blog Post About Spyware

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