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Our Bodies are Data Factories

Innovation times

Posted by JR Reagan on November 14, 2013

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Name the three most important things you grab every time you leave your house. What are they? Keys, money and your cell phone, right?

It doesn’t matter whether you live in New York or Nairobi, Boston or Bangladesh. After five years of research, a mobile device company found that if people own a cell phone, it’s one of the three most important things they carry, regardless of culture or gender.

To you, and to everyone who carries a smart phone, it’s a device of convenience. It allows us to stay connected through calls and texts. It tells time and takes photos. It lets us access the Internet, use practical apps and kill time playing games.

It also turns each and every one of us into a mobile factory that continuously generates enormous amounts of data. Data like our locations, our call and text histories, our Internet and social media usage.

And the phones in our pockets are just one of the ways our bodies spew out data. We create data trails with every transaction we make online or in person, with every email we send, with our every social media post made, through our Internet search histories and with many of the games and apps we use daily.

Eye in the sky?

Just how much information can one user’s cell phone generate? Ask Malte Spitz, the German politician who eventually had to sue a German telecommunications company to get access to the information the carrier had collected from his phone.

Spitz eventually received a file with a mind-blowing amount of data — 35,830 lines of it in all. Within it, he found six months’ worth of information tracking his every movement, conversation and time he spent on the Internet. You can check out just what Spitz was up to during this period by watching the time-lapse map he created, and hear his take on how we must fight for privacy in a TED talk he gave in 2012.

Mobile phone carriers aren’t the only ones collecting data about us. Online search engine servers scan the content of our emails to better target advertising, and our browsing is carefully watched by scores of other advertising companies. In an article for The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal found that during a visit to, not one, not 10, but 105 companies logged his visit to place customized ads and build files about his digital self. Madrigal used a tool called Collusion that lets people see which entities are tracking them online.

Bricks-and-mortar companies use our presence to collect data about us, too. In an HBR article, “Big Data: The Management Revolution,” Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson noted that a big-box retailer gathers an estimated 2.5 petabytes of data from customer transactions every hour (one petabyte, they explain, is large enough to hold roughly 20 million filing cabinets of text).

Data: Sometimes it does a body good

A number of groups are using the data generated by cell phones to address some of the world’s biggest problems. For example, public health experts can analyze the movements of cell phone users in tracking the spread of malaria. By watching movements of entire regions, the experts can determine whether, for instance, malaria could be controlled, or whether the high mobility registered would make any efforts ineffective.

Similarly, the Global Pulse group uses “digital trails that populations leave behind as they go about their daily lives” to detect indicators of stress. It maps global crises to help protect the most the most vulnerable among us.

The (not-so) public face of privacy

In his article for The Atlantic, Madrigal doesn’t find anything particularly “sinister” about online ad tracking companies — that’s what supports free content. He does conclude, though, by asking a simple question: “Should users be able to stop data collection, even if companies aren’t doing anything ‘bad’ with it?”

Like Spitz in his TED talk, Madrigal raises a fundamental concern about our right to data privacy. Yet many Americans don’t even know it’s an issue. It has been posited that many Americans believe that their mobile phones are almost or more private than their home computers.

That’s not really a surprise, based on a report from the GAO that suggests mobile carriers aren’t transparent enough in letting consumers know how they share and use collected data. Senator Al Franken, Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, who requested the report, summed it up thusly: “The report makes a strong case that legislation is needed to better protect our privacy.”

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