back to article Haiti study: Mass mobile phone tracking can be laudable

A new study uses the movements of mobile phones during the Haiti earthquake, and cholera epidemic, to accurately show where people went during the disasters, and where help should be delivered. Studying location data stored by Haiti's biggest network operator, Digicel, Swedish boffins got more accurate estimates of population …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.
FAIL

Still no excuse

This still is no excuse for mandating it in law. You can have an app that does that, but only tracks in the event of a disaster, ie survivors still alive start the app. Dead people have all the time in the world to be recovered.

1
1
Silver badge

The problem with that...

...is that in a genuine disaster, people may well be too busy to turn on the app. There also remains the problem of distributing the apps in various flavours and ensuring that enough people have it installed and running.

Simpler by far just to intercept the local towers and see who's where. And that's what the relevant authority will do every time. There also remains the problem of defining what is or is not an emergency. Phone logs, for example, came in quite handy during the recent London riots, but I'm willing to bet that not many people involved would have switched on a "Please track me" app. I like the idea of consent, but the plain truth is that it just would not work in many -or even most- circumstances.

Getting onto the wider issue; there are many scenarios where 1 dot per phone superimposed onto a map would provide very useful data...urban planning; crowd control; disaster planning/recovery etc etc. And it is going to happen, make no mistake. Is already happening, in fact. By tagging each phone individually the data becomes even more useful...if you were planning an event, for example, you could watch your tagged dots converging on your venue and you'd know in time whether or not to open up the overflow parking area and make the experience a little smoother for everyone.

The rot set in when governments legislated themselves the right to read my email, and things have been going quickly downhill since then. The best we as a populace can hope for is that 1) there's some oversight or at least a reason/warrant needed and 2) controls are put in place to stop misuse of the information.

This is a particularly pointy double-edged sword. The potential for abuse and mission creep are nearly limitless, and yet the information can be used in so many good ways too...watching realtime ebb and flow of large numbers of people would enable us to make our infrastructure more efficient.

0
0
Gold badge

Acceptability depends on context

I can imagine circumstances where I'd be happy for someone to cut off my arm, but generally speaking I'd prefer if they didn't.

This Haiti example sounds like a situation where a temporary invasion of privacy would have been tolerated. I don't think it sets any precedent for everyday life.

7
0
Silver badge
Big Brother

Recycled Guardian pap!

"we have to decide, as a society, if we think that allowing governments access to the location of their citizens is a risk worth taking in exchange for the benefits it gives"

Who is that "we" who has to decide. What does "as a society" mean?

Hold on, someone from a TLA is at the lobby window.

2
2
Stop

Emergencies only

If this is used only in emergencies, and requires sign-off by, eg, the Home Secretary, then it sounds fine. If it's done routinely and constantly, or can be invoked by any police officer or council worker, then it's not so good. Remember the RIPA abuses by low-level workers?

2
0
Silver badge
Trollface

But...

If the government knows where you are if there is an earthquake, then they could rescue you - then throw you in a concentration camp!

FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS, Mr G Man!

1
2

Non-emergencies

Bulk anonymous population information seems like the kind of thing that wouldn't be desperately hard to get an estimate of by conventional means in non-emergency situations, by having people on the ground, even if more accurate numbers might be obtained from mobile data.

Nor is it the kind of thing that many people would be up in arms about if it was a case of some bobby on the beat radioing in every few minutes to say how busy a their current location was.

It's not clear how access to bulk/anonymous data would be a great risk to individual privacy even outside emergency situations.

If I was travelling to some large legal non-unapproved gathering, It does seem I might benefit from traffic control people having some idea of how many people are coming from where.

If I was travelling to or already at some illegal gathering (rave, etc) or some legal but officially unwelcome gathering (demonstration, etc), I'm not sure how officialdom simply knowing numbers of people more accurately makes a great deal of difference to me.

If TPTB are going to break the gathering up, or even just doing crowd control, might well be in *more* danger if their estimates of numbers are seriously inaccurate than if they're actually reasonably good.

What's the difference in terms of privacy between someone having access to bulk anonymous data from mobiles and a traffic sensor telling them how many vehicles have driven along a particular road?

0
3
Silver badge

@David Wilson

The question you need to ask is "How anonymous will it actually be?"

If you are going to an event which is "not approved by the State", would you want even "anonymous" information being collected about you?

0
0

@Graham Marsden

>>"The question you need to ask is "How anonymous will it actually be?"

Well, if the data provided is just numbers of phones turned on in a given area, it's pretty seriously anonymous, even if numbers are relatively small.

In fact, unless there was persistent anonymised identification of an individual phone and its location over time which ultimately allowed it to be linked to an individual, it's difficult to see how anonymity could suffer much.

If the information was simply 'there are X phones in this area at this time', unless X was basically 1, and the spatial/temporal resolution allowed individual phone paths to be plotted accurately enough to know which phone was which after a close encounter, which even current GPS doesn't seem likely to be good enough to do even in the open air, how could anything really be extracted from the data beyond something like "There seems to be a movement of people from area A to area B"?

If you were going to assume that data isn't going to be aggregated or anonymised at all, then you simply wouldn't be talking about the study in the report, but about quite different kinds of potential data release, which really would be a quite different issue.

If fears of a worst-case slippery-slope were are going to be the main concern every single time suggestions are made of potentially useful use of data, how many useful uses would actually happen?

In fact, if we-can't-be-too-careful-'they'-might-abuse-it logic had its way, then we probably wouldn't have an Internet for people to fret on in the first place.

>>"If you are going to an event which is "not approved by the State", would you want even "anonymous" information being collected about you?"

It's already being collected unanonymously (nonymously?) by the phone company, and no doubt many people will assume that GCHQ already has some kind of backdoor access.

If the phone company actually is currently guarding my privacy for ethica, commercial or legal reasons, why should I expect that approach to change even if they were allowed or even required to provide bulk anonymous data, when it's be pretty obvious how anonymous the data was?

If they're not currently guarding my privacy, then I wouldn't seem likely to be losing anything, whatever happened.

Personally, if I was desperately concerned, I'd just turn my phone off or leave it at home.

It's not as if I'll die if I'm disconnected from the network for a few hours.

And if I was going to an event that was likely to be frowned upon, I'd expect that there more than almost anywhere, there would likely be people around who could provide pretty similar information simply by looking, if maybe with a less accuracy, and quite possibly cameras, etc.

Whether at a demonstration or in some random normal situation, if PC Plod was reporting how many people were in their vicinity, even if they were doing it every few seconds and doing it with high accuracy, how would /that/ actually impact on someone's privacy?

If I walk down the High Street while Plod is saying "26 people, 27 people, 29 people, 27 people, .....", even if my presence actually contributes to those numbers for a while, does that actually affect my privacy even in extreme principle?

Do I really have a right to be entirely /unseen/ in public, and not simply a right not to be unnecessarily followed.

0
0
Silver badge

@David Wilson

May I draw your attention to another story in El Reg: "Lawsuit alleges that Windows Phone 7 tracks users", to name just one example.

*IF* this data is simply "numbers of phones in an area" then, yes, it's pretty much anonymous. But if that's linked with "phones that made or received a call or text in that area", suddenly there's not so much anonymity.

Your question "If fears of a worst-case slippery-slope were are going to be the main concern every single time suggestions are made of potentially useful use of data, how many useful uses would actually happen?" wanders off into Straw Man arguments, so I'll just point out that you then go on to say "If they're not currently guarding my privacy, then I wouldn't seem likely to be losing anything, whatever happened" which seems like you're saying "oh well, I've already lost my privacy, so why worry?"

You conclude by asking "Do I really have a right to be entirely /unseen/ in public, and not simply a right not to be unnecessarily followed", but you appear to miss the point that unless *we* keep an eye on those watching us (quis custodiet...?) then that "right not to be unnecessarily followed" could, like so many other rights, be gradually whittled away "for our own good".

0
0
Big Brother

@Graham Marsden

I went to an excellent state un-approved 'pop' concert by Chumbawamba in Geneva in 1987. The anarcho-punk collective took over a disused factory with battery powered amps and it was a genuinely fun evening event. (It was their 'pictures of starving children sell records' rather than their TubThumping era). I distinctly remember not having my Natel-C NMT phone with me at the time. I have since been allowed back into Helvetia, but maybe the same wouldn't hold true today?

0
0
Silver badge
Big Brother

@AC

Somehow I don't think that attending a Chumbawumba gig (even if "state un-approved") would be such a serious offence that you would be banned from Switzerland (of course if it had been, say, Justin Bieber...)

But imagine, instead, you'd attended (or just been near) an anti-government demonstration in (insert name of repressive regime of your choice) and your phone was linked to that, perhaps matters would be different.

0
0
This topic is closed for new posts.

Forums