Friday, June 06, 2008

Cell phone spying, physics, and ethics

Laszlo Barabasi, network maven and author of Linked, has moved to Boston, where he now directs the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University (CCNR). Yesterday, the Center made headlines around the world after announcing that they had tracked the whereabouts of 100,000 cell phone users. The subjects of this experiment did not know they were being followed non-stop for 6 months.

The BBC headline was "Mobile phones expose human habits," which generated this post from Raph Koster, noting that the main technical result of the study (related to the "power law") is hardly as surprising as the researchers claim. (See Shirky for more on power laws; and if you really want to know, see Mark Neuman's scholarly explanation of why they pop up everywhere.)

American news coverage slanted away from the technical findings of the study and focused more on its dubious ethics. The passages below are from this this Reuters story published by the New York Times, and from yesterday's Boston Globe:
"Researchers who spied on 100,000 people using their cell phone signals confirmed on Wednesday that most human beings are indeed creatures of habit."

"The first-of-its-kind study by Northeastern University raises privacy and ethical questions for its monitoring methods, which would be 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.'"

"Barabasi said he spent nearly half his time on the study worrying about privacy issues.... Barabasi said he did not check with any ethics panel. [Barabasi's co-author] Hidalgo said they were not required to do so because the experiment involved physics, not biology. However, had they done so, they might have gotten an earful, suggested bioethicist Arthur Caplan at the University of Pennsylvania."
I am confused about a couple things here. Is "physics" the most appropriate name we have for the science of observing human habits and movement? And even more importantly, what does it mean that physics experiments do not need oversight by an ethics panel?

I am also sad to see that the URL for the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University is

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Graham Durant-Law said...

Hi Bruce,

I posted some comments about a similar study on Microsoft Messenger users - see .

Whilst it was an interesting study it raised a number of ethical questions for me. I hope these studies do not herald an era of "weak ethics".

Regards Graham

John said...

What could a study about human behaviors possibly have to do with physics? I can't wrap my head around that. It sounds like the researchers knew they were crossing ethical boundaries by conducting their study the way they did, and forged ahead anyway