Unjustified alarmism with mobile telephone data
In recent months, news related to mobile telephony has aroused fear among people, and this time it has not been “Trump vs. Huawei”. The news was as follows: “The INE will keep track of mobile phones throughout Spain for eight days“, where the INE (National Institute of Statistics) made public a project that consisted of the analysis of mobile phone data.
Headlines such as “Data Protection requests explanations about the use of the location of individuals for eight days”, generated uncertainty and mistrust about the INE initiative. All users fearful of their privacy should know that the data sold by telecommunications companies is disaggregated data, that is, it is impossible to directly relate a person based on the data that appears in these records.
Furthermore, these data are not used on an individual basis, but counts are used. For example, it could be known how many terminals are connected in Castro at 4 in the morning and how many are in Bilbao at 9, in order to determine how many people live in Castro but work or study in Bilbao.
“The INE will track the mobile phones of Spaniards, even if GPS is disabled” and “The data marketed by the operators will be collected through the so-called triangulation method”, are headlines that cannot be known if they are malicious, uninformed or simply pure clickbait.
But the truth is that they create confusion. The data collected by the telecoms are connections that our terminal makes to an antenna (for a call, to connect to the Internet…), which are called sessions. Although it is true that our terminal connects to several antennas in a process called “handover” (with the aim of transferring the connection from one antenna to another when the quality of the connection is not sufficient), the data that is recorded is the main antenna from which our terminal is receiving data. In conclusion, the INE will not use the GPS position of our terminal, and the famous triangulation is not applied in this project.
It should be noted that this data is not used to control or spy on citizens. These data are used to generate origin-destination matrices that determine population movements, including tourists.
In this way, citizens’ needs related to traffic or public transport can be identified. Mobile phone data makes it possible to obtain much more precise and objective mobility information than surveys.
In addition, it represents significant savings, since it is estimated that the expense of carrying out this project with conventional means would have involved an expense of 10 million euros, compared to the 500,000 euros that the INE has disbursed in the purchase of this data, what would have to be added the processing costs that would in no way reach, not even remotely, 10 million euros.
We tell all this because at Ingartek we are experts in working with mobile phone data to establish mobility patterns, and thus help in transport planning and management. It is a tool that, combined with others, allows obtaining more detailed information that helps make the best decisions.
Read article by Sergio Barreña «New sources of information to characterize mobility«.