Public Surveillence via Cellphone

Bruce Schneier points to this Wired piece on an MIT student’s research project where he handed out specially-equipped cellphones as a way to document the lives of students and employees of MIT. From the article:

Eagle’s Reality Mining project logged 350,000 hours of data over nine months about the location, proximity, activity and communication of volunteers, and was quickly able to guess whether two people were friends or just co-workers. It also found that MBA students actually do spend $45,000 a year to build monster Rolodexes, and that first-year college students — even those who attend MIT — lead chaotic lives.

He and his team were able to create detailed views of life at the Media Lab, by observing how late people stayed at the lab, when they called one another and how much sleep students got.

Given enough data, Eagle’s algorithms were able to predict what people — especially professors and Media Lab employees — would do next and be right up to 85 percent of the time.

Eagle used Bluetooth-enabled Nokia 6600 smartphones running custom programs that logged cell-tower information to record the phones’ locations. Every five minutes, the phones also scanned the immediate vicinity for other participating phones. Using data gleaned from cell-phone towers and calling information, the system is able to predict, for example, whether someone will go out for the evening based on the volume of calls they made to friends.

Eagle sees the project as a way to envision how mobile devices will further change our lives, but also as a revolutionary new way to study social networks.

I agree with Bruce that this goes beyond just a “new way to study social networks” – it reveals how easy it can be to build upon the already existing architecture of cell phones (cell providers automatically know where your phone is whenever it is on – and keep databases of that data) to surveil people engaging in their everyday activities. Mr. Eagle’s specific intentions might not be to engage in public surveillance, but he reminds us how our “privacy in public” is becoming more and more endangered.

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