Cell Phone Tracking for Big Data: An invasion of privacy, or an essential tool?

By Kelley Johnson

8521338394_ec9d0e1f06_m(CC image courtesy of Nicola on Flickr)

Data collected by local citizens on the ground in places that might be inaccessible to the people who usually collect this data due to conflict, natural disasters or geographic distance has become more common in recent years thanks to the prevalence of cell phones and various information channels[1]. This boon to data collection can help governments, policy makers and NGOs in ways that traditionally-collected data often fell short.

One example given in the Geojournal paper Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy was the tracking of cell phones during the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, with the idea that this tracking could help determine the level of disaster and displacement before anyone could be sent to the area to survey the destruction [1]. When we think about conflict and disasters today, such as the Syrian war and the violence in Iraq, it seems like this type of data collection could be invaluable for logistical, military and aid purposes.

However, did the people we could potentially be observing fleeing a bombed city or trying to escape an outbreak of a communicable disease agree to this tracking? When we consider that, in most studies, people are actively participating, or are at least aware that they are participating, is it ethical to use these individuals’ locations and calling habits for a larger numerical study? If I fill out a census form, I know that I am participating in a data collection; but just because I’m carrying a cell phone doesn’t mean I’m willing to provide information about my activities. What carries more weight: potential for the greater good or an individual’s right to privacy?

All in all, as the prevalence of cell phones continues to spread throughout the Global South, these are the kinds of questions that we will have to consider going into the future. Perhaps we are all becoming used to a little bit less privacy, knowing that photos and words shared online will never disappear; and, in a few years, constant data monitoring may become something of a norm.

No matter what, I think political scientists can look forward to more and more data from all over the world, and perhaps even more debate about the ethics of these practices.

Works Cited

1. Taylor L, Schroeder R. 2015: Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 11 october 2014

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4 comments

  1. you make a good point but it is very difficult to separate these things. On the hand you have data used to enhance the disaster response (which supposedly worked well in the case of Haiti) and on the other hand you have data that is collected for an unknown reason. The question seems to be “does the end justify the means?”. If you consider it as a force of good, then you can say that it is not so bad to track the data from the ‘distant others’ because it would instantly be used for their benefit. The problem lies within the use of data in geographic locations that are occupied by military forces or by any other types of regimes. If this technology is given to them, will they not use it to track the movement of their enemies (‘freedom fighters’)? The latter will make cell phone tracking a force of evil.

  2. Clearly, I believe that more debates are necessary about data privacy, ethical management of data, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. Even as you mentioned, data monitoring might become more common, we should thus become more aware and more involved.

    In the special situations, such as conflicts, disasters, and disease outbreaks, the “utilitarian argument” is necessary and crucial but would need the commitment of the concerned government and international organizations to play their role to ensure proper and ethical use.
    Thank you for your post.

  3. Matthew Robinson

    This topic is very important to consider as we move forwards with networked technology, as personal data is becoming more of a commodity for businesses and governments. Relating to what Makris pointed out, “The problem lies within the use of data in geographic locations that are occupied by military forces or by any other types of regimes,” China, perhaps the most obvious example, comes to mind, whether it be for stealthy industrial and business purposes (http://www.v3.co.uk/v3-uk/news/2359714/chinese-android-smartphone-firm-xiaomi-caught-collecting-users-data), or powerful oppression ranging from the Chinese “五毛 (Wǔmáo – 50 cent) Army” (http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/propaganda-03122014184948.html) who are paid to manipulate people’s opinions online, and remove “unharmonious” content from the web, to tracking personal communications and movements via technology in order to “disappear” someone (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/21/human-rights-lawyers-china-missing-clampdown).

    But political and geographical boundaries don’t always stop the spread of private data collection and misuse. Using a personal example, my Taiwanese girlfriend has in the past received insults and threats via Facebook from Chinese people (who somehow managed to vault the Great Firewall of China) who found her profile online, likely via specific keyword searches related to Taiwan. Following this, she had to make her profile and information totally non-public and non-searchable.

    Digital privacy should certainly be a basic human right, or we run the risk of falling into Mao Zedong’s communistic “the needs of the many greatly outweigh the needs of the few” trap.

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