back to article Belgian city slurps mobile data to track visitors

The Belgian city of Kortrijk in West Flanders is using data provided by a mobile phone company to count the number of people present in the town and where they come from. Even more worryingly, local public-service broadcaster VRT has reported that city officials will try to cross-reference this data with credit and debit card …

  1. Philippe

    Just a "Really?" kind of scheme.

    They're just shocked that there is anyone there. It makes sense to try and understand whether the tourists got lost or were forced to visit.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

    such assurances are the best giveaway the opposite is intended.

    1. cbars
      Big Brother

      Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

      There is no winning with that attitude. I am quite privacy conscious, and the Spanish idea gave me pause, but the utility of that information should not be discounted. We all complain about traffic etc and we need information at aggregate to solve or mitigate such population problems.... At some point you have to trust that most people (and therefore organisations) are usually honest. You can't function, and society can't function if the default position is that everyone lies all the time.... That's not to say that critical thought should not be used, but in this case I think you've had a knee jerk reaction and not a considered response.

      1. Trollslayer Silver badge

        Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

        As long as there is an independent review to make sure the data is anonymous.

        1. GnuTzu Silver badge

          Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

          Which includes determining the level to which the data is actually aggregated. Academic secure database principals warn about databases having enough fields to be able to do a query that is sufficiently specific to return statistical counts representing just a few individuals.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

            Yes. There's considerable research into de-anonymization, and it is successful to a much greater extent than people (even people with database experience) generally expect.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

        why should I trust authorities, when I have no way of verifying their claims (famous Russian "trust & verify is spoken from the position of authority, which has ways and means to verify, unlike an individual), and when authorities have already abused my trust (and make meaningless statements knowing very well that such statements are not verifiable).

        btw, I see your point very well about trust and society. However, as an individual, I won't ignore being screwed because, quote "you have to" and "can't function" and I will defend myself the only way I can (although I agree that too much distrust leads to, probably, paranoia on individual level, and breakdown of society, on macroscale).

      3. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        Re: Spanish citizens have been assured the data will be anonymous and aggregated

        Trust, but verify.

  3. Ugotta B. Kiddingme Silver badge

    appropriate time for extreme rudeness?

    "Oh, Belgium man, Belgium!" -

    Zaphod Beeblebrox

  4. TheGhostDeejay

    Genuinely annoymised?

    Really? How quaint if true.

    Those people who are affected by this had better hope that whoever is doing this stuff don't decide to take lessons on how to spy on people from my "Government" (U.K) and G.C.H.Q.

    Cheers… Ishy

  5. sbt Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    I have a strong cense...

    ... that in a few short years, the traditional decennial census will be replaced with annual "surveys", data harvesting/matching, and a within a few more years, constant monitoring. The government of the day will say, "we don't need to run the census; we already have all the data about where people are and what they're doing. Also the census is a legitimate purpose under the GDPR, so boo!"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I have a strong cense...

      The link to the newspaper article says that that's exactly what happened in Spain. The last census in Spain where people went round and knocked on doors to deliver and collect the census form was in 2001, since then they join records from the local council, the Land Registry, and social security.

      Also, if you live in Spain your tax return is probably pre-filled unless you're self employed or a company director or something.

      And you probably don't get a paper tax return now, instead you log in with the equivalent of Verify, except it works. You can check the precalculation, update if necessary, and submit it all online if you want.

      Could we trust the British government if they had the same data? I doubt it, not with the headlines we see every day about the Home Office and the DWP.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On and On....

    The more uses people come up with for extracting data like this from mobile phone users, the more I am inclined to leave it at home or just switch it off until I actually need it.

    It's my phone, for my conveneience, not yours to make your life easier.

  7. Chris the bean counter

    With enough controls

    I think the Spanish experiment is an excellent idea. I know an unpopular opinion

    The mobile company would not provide phone ID just the number of users per tower.

    Given the million and one ways privacy is taken from us this is hardly an invasion and would prove very useful.

    Would be good to know how many people really do live in each area of UK etc to ensure correct number of hospitals and housing

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: With enough controls

      Would be good to know how many people really do live in each area of UK etc to ensure correct number of hospitals and housing

      I'd agree with you, if I thought that there was the slightest chance that any UK government would use the data to provide more hospitals and local services.

      However, reality suggests they would do the exact opposite, and use the data to "prove" that they could close existing hospitals, schools, libraries, police stations etc etc in lower populated areas.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: With enough controls

        Maybe that view should influence the way you vote in the next election.

        Some people view that different parties are more or less likely to close those services.

        It isn't like the current lot are shouting about getting an extra 20,000 police officers which is less than the 21,000 that have been cut while they are in power.

      2. BebopWeBop Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: With enough controls

        How quaint - the assumption that the UK government actually relies on real data for decisions.

      3. Mark 65

        Re: With enough controls

        @Alister: Given the UK is the home of GCHQ they already have all the mobile phone based data and metadata they could ever wish for. They just don't publicise it.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: With enough controls

      Oh, are we playing "spot the technocrat"?

      I can think of few pressing political problems that can be remedied primarily by supplying more data, and even fewer that are likely to be.

  8. heyrick Silver badge

    while in rural areas the individual cells will stretch for miles

    Which in an extremely depopulated area is still likely enough to identify a single person...

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: while in rural areas the individual cells will stretch for miles

      Cell data is mapped to areas which cover 5,000 inhabitants so in theory someone living in the country will have no more or less chance of being identified than someone living in the city.

  9. Mephistro Silver badge
    Boffin

    "...between July and August, 799,336 people visited the town, almost 20,000 a day when students, employees and residents are excluded."

    Either Mrs. Fanny Numbers has visited us or I'm massively misunderstanding this paragraph.

    is it 62 (days in July + August) X 20,000 (visitors per day) = 1,240,000 (visitors after excluding residents and students)? *

    or should it be (1,240,000 (total phone users) - X (residents + students)) / 62 days = 20,000 (tourists per day)?

    * Which, IMHO, doesn't make any sense.

    1. MCMLXV
      Headmaster

      She has a sister

      And she appears to have been accompanied by her married sister, Mrs. Fanny Grammar-Logic. "...between July and August" is (to my pedantic mind, at least) a slightly unhappy use of "between" and indicates a time interval of exactly zero seconds. Perhaps "...in July and August" instead?

      Forgive me: it's been a shit of a day and I'm on my second dram.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: She has a sister

        In English "between" just about always includes the limits. I used to have a problem with it as well because in my mother tongue the equivalent excludes the limit, but I've gotten used to it.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: She has a sister

          I think "just about always" is incorrect. Certainly it rarely does when "between" is used as a preposition to refer to physical space, as in "put it between the table and the chair".

          In this case, it's plausible that "between" was being used in its alternate sense of "with the combination of A and B", as in "between you and me", or "between the Ukraine scandal and Guiliani's accidental disclosures, there's plenty to warrant an investigation". In that usage there's no interval implied, but a pair of contributing entities.

    2. Paul Smith
      Coat

      How about 800,000 distinct phones in the time period that were not there every day so can be counted as visitors (as opposed to residents or students), with an average of 20,000 distinct (non-local) phones each day. The difference between 800,000 and 62x20,000 suggests that some people might have stayed for more then one day. Coincidentally, If 5800 phones (people) were day trippers and 14200 stayed one night, then you would have 800,000 unique visitors over the two months with an average of 20,000 visitors a day.

      Mines the one with "Beginners guide to data analysis" in the pocket.

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