Government trials mobile phone data to track us

Big Brother really is watching us. And he’s in our pockets all the time. The UK government is using mobile phone data to find out where we are and what we are doing.

For centuries, governments have wrestled with the problem of finding out how many people are living in their countries and what they’re doing. Conducting a census is a time-consuming and expensive business, so the UK government has been looking into alternative methods of counting us.

The Administrative Data Census Project is working to assess whether the government’s ambition of using other sources of data can be met.

In a statement, the Office of National Statistics said “We’re aiming to produce population estimates, household estimates and population and housing characteristics using a combination of administrative and survey data. This is to meet demands for improved population statistics and as a possible alternative to the census.”

Anonymized data

The ONS is quick to stress that all the data that’s being produced is anonymized (so Big Brother can’t really know where we are – just the numbers).

The system works by tracking phone users using the location of cellular masts. Mobile network operators (MNOs) are able to estimate the geographical areas containing the usual residence and place of work for their subscribers. With appropriate weighting, the operators can then produce transport-related estimates including commuter flows, which, in turn, will provide information on where subscribers live and work.  

The trials, which were conducted over a four-week period in March and April of this year, were carried out in conjunction with Vodafone, so all the data was gathered from one operator.

There’s little personal identification in the statistics: no phone numbers or details of owners. Nor is it possible to determine a mobile’s precise location such that a home or work address can be identified.

For such methods to be used in statistics, some of these privacy restrictions would need to be lifted – that may be quite a battle. But the use of mobile phone data does offer a glimpse as to how future censuses would work.