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Keeping tabs on researcher led to story about AT&T tracking customers’ nightlife

ATT party location data

How your cell phone data is harvested and where it goes. (Click for full graphic.)

I thought turning off the GPS locator on my cell phone made me less traceable (not that I needed to be.)  But then came Eric Sagara’s Star-Ledger story that explains how telecommunications companies track and use cell users’ movements.

His story focuses on an experiment in Morristown, N.J. There, AT&T researchers mapped about 41 million phone calls and text messages relayed through cell towers around the region to get a “clear snapshot of where Morristown’s labor pool lives and where its late-night revelers go when the bars close,” the story says. The story says the data showed workers commute from as far east as Queens, and Morristown’s nightlife draws people not only from North Jersey, but from Brooklyn as well.

This isn’t the kind of stuff you learn in a press release. Eric, who works on the data desk, says he found the AT&T researcher through Twitter lists he created to keep tabs on researchers.

Eric Sagara

“Create lists of researchers and watch who they follow, and who follows them,” Eric says. One researcher “tweeted out what he was doing and that’s how I tracked him down.”

Eric says he found a research paper about the Morristown experiment and contacted the researcher directly. He suggests that reporters pay attention to the sort of research their companies are doing. Getting the names of the primary researchers can help you see what they’re working on, he says.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to determine if there’s a similar experiment in your area. Eric says you can ask around to see how location tracking is being used. “You have to identify the issue first and move on from there,” he says.


In Basics, Featured, Technology.

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