What ever happened to our privacy?

What ever happened to our privacy? Don Reisinger tries to find out.

Am I living in a world where privacy doesn't matter? One where my right to do what I want within legal boundaries is stymied by the incorrigible desire to spy on me and know exactly what I'm doing at all times? One where the world is a big fish bowl and I'm swimming around trying desperately to find a private place?

It certainly looks that way.

A new study from Northeastern University secretly tracked the locations of 100,000 people outside the United States by monitoring their cell phone use and found that most people rarely travel more than a few miles from their home.

I'm not too sure why anyone really cares how far people travel from their homes, but this study does raise one important issue: Northeastern University researches tracked individuals without their knowledge with total disregard for privacy concerns. Obviously heeding the advice of legal counsel, the researchers conducted the study in "an industrialized nation" so they wouldn't be tracking US citizens while in the same country.

According to the Associated Press, "Researchers used cell phone towers to track individuals' locations whenever they made or received phone calls and text messages over six months. In a second set of records, researchers took another 206 cell phones that had tracking devices in them and got records for their locations every two hours over a week's time period."

Unbelievable.

Of course, not everyone thinks what Northeastern did was wrong even though this form of non-consensual tracking is illegal in the United States.

"This is a new step for science," said study co-author Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, director of Northeastern's Center for Complex Network Research. "For the first time we have a chance to really objectively follow certain aspects of human behavior."

Really? Is that what you call it, Mr. Barabasi? In my mind, your practices were nothing short of deplorable. First off, why would it be so difficult to ask people if you can monitor their movements? Secondly, why was it necessary to be so clandestine about it? All you really did was track individuals' every move, right?

Sadly though, the researchers knew that this kind of study would set off alarms all over the place. The AP is reporting that the researchers "started with 6 million phone numbers and chose the 100,000 at random to provide "an extra layer" of anonymity for the research subjects." They also hid the phone numbers in an "ugly" 26-digit format.

That said, they failed to speak to an ethics committee and as one expert pointed out, "There is plenty going on here that sets off ethical alarm bells about privacy and trustworthiness."

And therein lies the rub. Instead of performing a study that has some serious social consequences that may make understanding human nature just a bit easier, the researchers at Northeastern University chose instead to follow a path that sets a dangerous precedent for privacy issues and looks dangerously similar to many more privacy problems we've witnessed over the past few years.

But that's where my issues truly lie. Instead of allowing us to live a life that we want to lead -- one where privacy is paramount -- we're being forced to succumb to privacy regulations that run directly against that right. What ever happened to privacy in the face of liberty? What ever happened to that feeling I once had knowing that when I walk out of my house, drive to the store, pick up a six-pack, and come back, no one is watching me do it?

Some people like to say that if you have nothing to hide, you don't have anything to worry about. And while that may be true if everyone is a good person without any ulterior motives, I don't think anyone is naive enough to believe that for one second.

What Northeastern University did may be a small offense and the researchers tried to control privacy concerns, but what about the next group of researchers that go a bit further? And those after that that go even further? When will it end?

In a free world, I always thought privacy was a right and not a privilege. But as the months turn to years, I'm quickly realizing that I was naive all along.

We have a right to privacy and technology is quickly becoming the bastion for invasion of privacy. And regardless of where you stand on the Northeastern University study, I think we can all agree that we should expect to walk out of our homes each day with a real sense that we're anonymous. Unfortunately, that isn't happening.

But is it really too much to ask?

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About the author

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.

 

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