back to article Japan seeks unheard-of new uses for cell location data

Japanese operator NTT Docomo plans to use its store of location data to work out where to build more houses, and how many people get stuck during an earthquake. Those are two just of the potential applications for the huge amount of location data stored by mobile network operators, and where Docomo and the University of Tokyo …


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  1. Jacob Lipman


    "But it is interesting to note that every time there is a march, protest or gathering the mobile network operators know exactly how many people attended – even if the police and organisers can never seem to agree."

    This is not accurate. Each carrier knows how many of its telephones were connected within the area where the march, protest or gathering took place. This does not account for people who do not bring their telephones, or turn their telephones off. This does not neccesarily account for people who live or work within the area who did not attend the event. This also does not account for people who carry more than one mobile telephone - this is increasingly common as people carry a personal phone and a work phone. This information is good for a basic estimate, but does not directly correlate to the number of people attending a gathering.

    1. DJ 2
      Big Brother

      But it's easy.

      To take two adjacent cells and calculate the flow of above average usage following the path of the march.

    2. Peter H. Coffin

      It's called mathematics

      The number of people that live and work in an area, or even would otherwise be visiting an area is known already through historical data on the number of phones on similar dates and times when there wasn't a protest going on.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Your phone checks into the network even when turned off

        As title.

        At least, I expect that's why phones transmit something periodically when turned off. I can't think of any other reason they would do.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Re:"phones transmit something periodically when turned off"

          Do you have proof of that that you can link to here ?

          Because when my phone is off, it sure as heck isn't transmitting anything. And if they did, I think someone would have already found out.

        2. Andy J
          Big Brother

          Mobiles do continue to poll when switched off

          Yes, the only way to ensure that you position is not being tracked is to remove the battery.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Big Brother

            Re: phones transmit something periodically when turned off

            It's not rocket science. I discovered this while resolving a support call. Something was periodically causing interference on a (presumably poorly shielded) speaker of the sort you get with high frequency radio waves. The only thing vaguely near the speaker was a handbag, and I immediately suggested that the problem was likely to be a mobile. The user produced it and pointed out it was turned off.

            After systematically eliminating every other possibility such as AC/DC transformers etc I was left with the mobile. Following the old dictum that after removing the impossible, whatever remains however improbable must be the truth we then looked at the mobile. Removing the battery from the phone removed the problem.

            Curiosity led to us testing a whole bunch of mobiles on that speaker to see if they were doing anything when turned off. Every one we checked was transmitting something. I don't know what, I don't have the equipment for that but they are sure as hell transmitting something and given that there is absolutely no reason for any activity when the phone is turned off then one assumes that it's announcing it's location.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother


    "mobile network operators know exactly how many people attended" do they know how many protestors protest against carrying phones and sure there's the argument of extrapolating known general population Mobe ownage but who knows there affiliations or the general paranoia levels associated???

    AC as you know the Register is notorious for their tracking and deranged statistical metrics:-)

  3. CaptainHook

    Future Planning Uses

    It's an interesting and potentially useful idea for getting statistics hour by hour in near real-time and so could be very useful for the Natural Disaster response, prehaps event planning based on past events, but I don't see how data helps with planning future infrastructure.

    It's not like 100 people go to an empty field at the end of the day and then developers can go "ah ha, we should build houses there".

    People (or rather crowds) go to where the infrastructure already exists, but surely you already know people use that infrastructure otherwise why did you build it in the first place?

    1. Peter H. Coffin

      re: future planning uses

      It's true that people don't go stand in a field, but if lots of people commute PAST that field regularly, it may be worth putting some housing and a 7-11 there.

    2. Gannon (J.) Dick

      Prior Art

      I agree with "an interesting and potentially useful idea", but if not for that "new" idea, why were they collecting the information before ? Rather like digging a deep hole and inserting valuable minerals at the bottom, I think.

      Well at least, or at most the issue is in the open now. "Privacy is dead" because it was low hanging fruit and easy money, not because there was any justifiable motivation for its demise.

      They, of course, still have the problem of purging existing data in such a way that it seems like they didn't gather it to begin with. I suggest instead, the "bad old days" approach - admit mistakes were made, and redact by linking to outer cyberspace or something like it. The Public will be well served, and served quickly, with the Social Engineering bits removed.

    3. Steven Roper

      @ CaptainHook

      >"People... go to where the infrastructure already exists... otherwise why did you build it in the first place?"

      Google "new empty cities in China" sometime. In short, the Chinese government has been building entire cities and suburbs, with all their infrastructure, that nobody lives in - simply to provide jobs and growth. Some of the pictures of these empty cities are quite creepy - it looks like something from Aftermath: Population Zero. It is the end result of what an unsustainable growth model can lead to.

      The Unconventional Economist has some interesting info on this matter:

  4. NoneSuch

    "mobile network operators know exactly how many people attended"

    Yes they do know within a few percentage points. How many people leave their phones behind and sacrifice Twitter and Facebook?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    @Prior Art

    "why were they collecting the information before ?"

    because they could, cheap hard disks, encouragement of law enforcement agencies, ...

    "They, of course, still have the problem of purging existing data in such a way that it seems like they didn't gather it to begin with"

    not really, they just have to prove it was anonymised prior to being stored.

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