Researchers are harvesting a wealth of intimate detail from our cellphone data, uncovering the hidden patterns of our social lives, travels, risk of disease—even our political views.
Apple and Google may be intensifying privacy concerns by tracking where and when people use their mobile phones—but the true future of consumer surveillance is taking shape inside the cellphones at a weather-stained apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass.
For almost two years, Alex Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has tracked 60 families living in campus quarters via sensors and software on their smartphones—recording their movements, relationships, moods, health, calling habits and spending. In this wealth of intimate detail, he is finding patterns of human behavior that could reveal how millions of people interact at home, work and play.
Through these and other cellphone research projects, scientists are able to pinpoint "influencers," the people most likely to make others change their minds. The data can predict with uncanny accuracy where people are likely to be at any given time in the future. Cellphone companies are already using these techniques to predict—based on a customer's social circle of friends—which people are most likely to defect to other carriers.