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Study tracking people via cell phone raises privacy issues

Researchers determine people tend to stay close to home for months at a time by tracking 100,000 cell phone users in an undisclosed industrial nation outside the U.S.

Updated 12:34 p.m. PDT to correct the attribution of the cellular phone tracking story. The story that focused on the privacy issues was written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.

Cell phone usage tracked in an undisclosed industrial nation revealed a majority of users tend to remain close to home for months at a time, according to a study conducted by Northeastern University and cited Wednesday in the journal Nature.

While the study of 100,000 cell phone users in a country outside the U.S. demonstrated that 75 percent remained within a 20-mile radius of their home over a six-month period, the study, nonetheless, raised privacy issues, according to an Associated Press report on The users didn't agree to participate in the study--such nonconsensual tracking would be illegal in the United States, according to a Federal Communications Commission source quoted in the AP story.

Albert-Lazio Barabasi, co-author of the study and director of Northeastern's Center for Complex Network Research, acknowledged he was concerned about the privacy issues when conducting the research, but that the phone numbers provided by the carrier were altered to conceal the users' identities. The report could not state the exact location of the users, but rather only the cell tower that was receiving and transmitting phone calls and text messages, according to the Associated Press story.

The Nature article noted that the research may aid urban planners in developing appropriate resources and could also inform epidemiologists on the potential path that viruses may take in a given population.