Mobile Phone Stalkers – Ignorance is the opposite of bliss

January 28th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, phone stalking | 77 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 28, 2006
The Guardian

I spend a lot of my time wondering: why are people so afraid of science, when it has given us so much? To my mind there are two answers: firstly, the everyday science that you learned at school is no longer enough to understand the world around you. Fifty years ago, a fairly well educated person could easily have a full understanding of how the technology they interacted with actually worked: you could explain a car, a wind-up record player, a fridge, or the old analogue telephone exchange network, for example, on the back of an envelope, or with the help of a science teacher, pretty quickly.

But that’s not true any more. Look around you. Do you really, fully understand your mobile phone? The braking system on your car? Where your breakfast came from? Or even the manufacturing process that produced this bit of newspaper? My guess is no. Any sufficiently advanced technology, as they say, is indistinguishable from magic, and these days, with the pace of new developments, that goes even for people who know a lot about science. And that’s spooky. We don’t like that, either intellectually, or in our gut.

But secondly, of course, and more infuriatingly for scientists, the decisions about technology, about how it is used – political decisions – tarnish the popular view of scientists. Genetic modification of organisms is interesting and useful in an uncountably huge number of theoretical or even practical situations. Mass rollout of GM crops, though, makes people nervous, for some good reasons, and it’s issues like this that make science seem sinister and remote. So here is a very unpleasant new example of how new technology throws up new problems. This week, I noticed a glaring flaw in the mobile phone networks that allows you to stalk people, and find their location to within 200 yards, any time you want, without their permission. You don’t have to be Einstein; there are websites all over the internet to do this.

Here is how it works. You register on the site, pay a few quid, type in the phone number of the person you want to track, and then the system sends them a text message. All you need to do is surreptitiously get access to your target’s mobile phone, without their knowledge, for just five minutes: long enough to receive that text message, reply with the word LOCATE, and delete two text messages that arrive immediately, warning them they are being tracked. You can stalk them for a couple of days, find out if they really are where they say they are, work out who they are with, perhaps find out if they’re having an affair, then delete them off the system. They will never be any the wiser.

I asked my girlfriend if I could, in principle, track her for a day, without telling her how: she agreed and I set the service up on her phone, in five minutes, while she was asleep. I have a map of her movements in front of me right now. It feels very wrong. And it required no technical knowledge, or “hacking”, whatsoever. That this is possible, and so easy, to my mind, is extremely sinister. I had a squabble with one of these companies on Radio 4 yesterday, and they seemed astonished at what I was saying. They promised that they would tighten up security, and think about getting better consent for tracking people’s location than one response to a text message. The notion that this technology could be misused in this way had not, apparently, occurred to them. It took me to point it out to them. Who the hell am I? Nobody. Do I work for a phone company? Do I work for the government?

In that moment, I can honestly say, I felt the fear that so many people feel with technology. I don’t fully understand how mobile phones work. But now I know that anybody can use them to track people, without their permission, I share that uneasy sense that everything is, somehow, out of control …

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

You can hear the discussion here:

www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/youandyours/items/02/2006_04_fri.shtml


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77 Responses



  1. Frank Swain said,

    January 28, 2006 at 9:35 am

    With reference to the public’s apprehension toward science, what can be done? I wanted to know: do you support the inclusion of “ordinary people” on commitees which decide government policy on science matters? Personally, I think we can do well to consider the public’s antipathy (or lack of) toward a new development (e.g. GM crops) but we should definitely not let vague anxieties and misunderstanding dictate policy.

    I think scientists sometimes wrongly assume the benefits of their work are self-evident (because, as you point out, they understand the processes behind it whereas others do not).

    These people aim to promote public understanding of science, fair play to them. I’m endeared by their mission to explain the concept of peer review to the nation.

  2. Frank said,

    January 28, 2006 at 9:39 am

    Not sure that link is working. See www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/peerreview/shortguide.htm
    for a nce leaflet on peer review.

  3. Watching Them, Watching Us said,

    January 28, 2006 at 10:31 am

    We have been worried about these commercial Location Based Services since they started to come to market in 2003, aimed not just at companies with mobile remote workers , uit also at the “parents worried about their children” and “families worried about vulnerable old people with Alzhemner’s disease etc.” see

    www.spy.org.uk/cgi-bin/childlocate.pl

    “ChildLocate mobile phone tracking concerns” , which include worries about the security of the website account logins, which are not exactly up to the standard of say, internet banking, although the information which is supposed to be protected, i.e. the near real-time approximate location of a vulnerable child or adult, could be worth far more than mere money.

    The actual accuracy of these Location Based Services can vary enormously , depending on where you are. In say, central London, where there are hundreds of mobile phone cell transmitters and pico-cells in small busy areas (e.g. the ones which gave Victoria Station concourse in your tracking experiment for Radio 4) , the accuracy can be pretty good.

    However, in, say, the notorious Soham murder case, the fact that one of the victim’s mobile phones connected not to the nearest cell phobne transmitter to her location, but to the next one about 5 miles away

    www.spy.org.uk/spyblog/2003/12/soham_murders_mobile_phones_an.html

    (a fact which eventually led to theinvestigation of the murderer Ian Huntley) would have been worse than useless, if such a mobile phone tracking service had been used to initiate a search for the missing child.

    There is, of course a voluntary “Code of Practice for the use of mobile phone technology to
    provide passive location services in the UK”,

    www.orange.co.uk/documents/regulatory_affairs/ls_cop_locationservices_outline_240904.pdf

    outline of which is available online.

    However, the Industry Regulator

    www.ofcom.org.uk

    Ofcom, which should be lookung out for the interests of the public, not just protecting the revenue streams of the mobile phone industry, has refused to get involved.

    See our

    www.spy.org.uk/foia/location_based_services_code_of_practice/

    Freedom of Information Act request which tried to find an official copy of the Code of Practice document above, which at the time was not to be found on any of the mobile phone network companies websites.

    The Mobile Phone Networks charge a fixed rate per location request (wether it is sucessful or not i.e. rgey still charge even when the phone is switched off) to the third party Location Based Service providers who integrate the location data with an online map via a website.

    If these LBS companies had to send out an SMS message to the phone being tracked, each time a customer made a location tracking request, then there would be little or no profit in the businessm as each SMS costs about the same as the revenue they get for each Location request.

    (apologies for the raw web links, it is unclear from this form if HTML will be parsed out by the anti-spam filters, and there does not apper to be a preview option)

  4. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 11:35 am

    Another thing to be concerned about is who controls information about science, and hence frames debates on science in the media. Take one example: Sense About Science (as mentioned above in another comment).

    SAS is a lobby group run by right-wing “Libertarians”, as reported in the Guardian by George Monbiot: www.monbiot.com/archives/2003/12/09/invasion-of-the-entryists/

    There are numerous such groups, and they are often quote by the media without pointing out exactly what they do. In reality they are little more than PR firms outputting bogus/biased “research” payed for by powerful political groups or private companies.

  5. Francois Gould said,

    January 28, 2006 at 11:40 am

    get over yourselves guys, we’re not better or even cleverer than everyone else, we just have more learning.Anyone can access learning, that’s why it’s democratic. So, actually, actively involving the wider community (all the stakeholders in project management parlance) is a) good and b) not doomed to failure as long as the scientists involved actually engage with the process and provide the required knowledge to the people involved. We’ve got to stop with our weird hybrid victim and superiority complex.
    Incidentally, the public awareness of the possibility of phone tracking is probably quite high thanks to TV. So however told them that was just science fiction clearly lied.

  6. Stu said,

    January 28, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    George Monbiot, eh? Must be true then.

  7. amoebic vodka said,

    January 28, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Anything said by George “Frankenfood” Monbiot should generally be ignored.

  8. Worried Prof said,

    January 28, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    A lot of people in the scientific community are very worried that all of these organisations promoting science, the Science Media Centre and Sense About Science, seem to be run by people who all used to work for “Living Marxism”. I don’t know or care much about Monbiot but that article you link to reflects a lot of what is said in private about the problem.

    It is a very serious cause for concern, as they do sometimes make rather odd decisions, put their political “fellow travellers” on each others committees, presumably to the exclusion of others more suited, and get very frosty about anyone who mentions their odd political past.

    It should be talked about a lot more, so that people are at least aware of the concerns, at the moment journalists I notice tend to take these groups very much at face value. It’s not necessarily a major problem but it is source for concern, and the collective denial of it is very unhealthy.

  9. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    Stu wrote: “George Monbiot, eh? Must be true then. ” The implication being, and voiced explicitly by amoebic vodka, “Monbiot should generally be ignored”. Not the strongest of arguments. The article itself had nothing specifically to do with science, other than making connections between various groups pushing a political agenda claiming to be pro-science. The general position of such groups is that anything politically acceptable to them is sound/good science, and anything politically unacceptable junk/bad science. Their position is not so different from the Creationist/ID one, but with religion replaced by politics. Any science that backs ID is good, the rest is bad. This is a serious threat to science, and I see no reason why though it is considered unacceptable in the case of religion, it should be acceptable in the case of politics.

    As for the “Frankenfood” reference, this is effectively the result of a PR campaign to stifle criticism of GM crops. Associate someone with this word and they can be safely ignored, ’nuff said. Public debate on GM crops is almost always framed entirely in terms of science: will GM do what they say? Is it safe? etc. Then we are told that GM will feed the world and reduce poverty etc. And invariably the word “Frankenfood” is wheeled out and associated with GM critics. This is a PR tactic to make critics look like anti-science crazies (and maybe some are, but plenty aren’t). But it is not much different than the Creationist/ID tactic of using of the word “theory” to discredit evolution. Take a mainstream critical view on GM from Oxfam: www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/trade/trade_gm.htm They don’t look like crazies, and you rarely see those arguments represented in the media.

  10. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Worried Prof, it is worth noting that there are also people in the sceptic community beginning to voice concerns about this, for example see links at: skepdic.master.com/texis/master/search/?query=libertarian&db=sites%2Fwww.skepdic.com . I don’t see this as being much different than Creationism/ID movement, they are sometimes even funded by the same groups. I’ve heard good things about the book “The Republican War on Science” (www.waronscience.com ) which voices similar concerns.

  11. Stu said,

    January 28, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Fred, No I don’t think Monbiot should be ignored. But neither do I think his articles should be swallowed uncritically, as you appeared to be doing in your first post. Monbiot is a politician, too, you know. If you have a problem with Sense About Science, then engage with their arguments. After all, if they are just giving jobs to the boys “to the exclusion of others more qualified” (in the words of Worried Prof), then their arguments should be pretty substandard, no?

  12. RS said,

    January 28, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    “SAS is a lobby group run by right-wing “Libertarians”, as reported in the Guardian by George Monbiot”

    Oh come on. That article didn’t establish that at all. It was more like six degrees of separation. It is all ‘one of its members’, and ‘studied under…’, or ‘contributed an article to spiked’. All it shows is that a very loosly associated bunch of people work in jobs throughout the public understanding of science industry – wow, maybe they share some similar interests then. If you got my mates and wrote an article like that you could probably claim a similar shady network controlling science publishing, and, even worse, the actual scientific research carried out.

  13. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Stu wrote: “If you have a problem with Sense About Science, then engage with their arguments.” Except I don’t have easy access to the media, which was my point. Think-tanks, lobby groups, and PR companies have easy access to the media and are able to control the information presented by the media; the average scientist, or citizen is not. If they dominate and frame the debate then they have effectively won. One PR tactic used by both ID supporters and corporate lobby groups is to create a fake controversy: e.g. ID v evolution, smoking causes lung cancer v smoking safe, climate change v not happening. The purpose is not to win the debate, but to create doubt in the public mind and break any opposition.

  14. Bagpuss said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Fred Blogs needs to have a cup of tea and a sit down.

    If the public perception of science is in the hands of a tiny sect of ex-trots hell bent on mind-controlling the entire world for the advancement of the neo-con agenda, but only he and George Monbiot have noticed, then it’s probably too late, ‘cos Monbiot has bored anyone who would listen with his tedious tales of “WE’RRRRRRE DOOOOOOOMED I TELLL YE, DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED”. He should find a more credible hero he can help to save the planet with.

    Meanwhile, there is lithium.

  15. Worried Prof said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    I can tell you for certain that whenever anyone brings up the subject of Living Marxism with these SAS, SMC, and other people at launches and “drinks do’s” they start to behave rather strangely. There is no doubt they are all very closely linked, by more than social ties, and I think there should be more transparency about this.

  16. Bagpuss said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Worried Prof. Have you read David Icke’s book about alien lizards?

  17. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    RS wrote: “Oh come on. That article didn’t establish that at all. It was more like six degrees of separation.” and Bagpuss wote: “If the public perception of science is in the hands of a tiny sect of ex-trots hell bent on mind-controlling the entire world for the advancement of the neo-con agenda…”

    I only gave the link to Monbiot’s site to give some background information and I only gave SAS as an example because someone happened to link to them above. My point is who gets to decide what groups like these and others report to the media? They are not accountable to anybody including the scientific community and can report what they like. I am not saying that everything they report is wrong, but it is surely no accident that they only report on issues that just happen to be very profitable, and that they also happen to support the side that is profitable.

  18. Fred Blogs said,

    January 28, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    Worried Prof, makes an important point — “I think there should be more transparency about this.”

    I think everyone here is concerned about how science is presented in the media. If the Discovery Institute disseminates misinformation to the media, you can be sure that people here will be pissed off about it. The DI presents itself as a pro-science group that wishes to educate people via the media, but is really just a PR outlet for Evangelical Christian groups. And they are very good at it. I don’t see why political groups who do the same should be tolerated. Of course they don’t advertise that they are political, but neither does the DI advertise that it is religious. The fact that they selective in the science issues that they are interested in should be a big clue.

    Much better than think-tanks etc. are groups of scientists that get together to represent science. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists: www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/ . This is surely a better way to represent science to the public, is it not?

  19. Robie Basak said,

    January 28, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    I just felt that I had to attribute this quote.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C Clarke

  20. Stu said,

    January 28, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Fred,
    Are you really saying that the UCS are NOT political? Or that they are NOT “selective in the science issues that they are interested in”? Maybe you just happen to agree with their politics and their selection of science issues.

  21. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 28, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Most of the sciencey people I hang out with already know that SAS/SMC/LM/Spiked/IoI are all the same people, and yes, people do say they sometimes get a bit funny when anyone talks about it, but as individuals they all seem very sound, Mike Fitzpatrick and Helene Guldberg especially, so I’m not quite sure what their evil plan might be. I’ll let you know when we work it out.

    Realistically, my guess is this clustering of interests might arise partly from the “technology is fab” idea that was knocking around for a while on the left, but I’m also childish enough to think it also might reflect the traditional red/green war between environmentalists and left wingers for the hearts and minds of the kids.

    Anyway.

    Can I just point out that this dreary squable has totally distracted attention from my fantastic story about how you can track people with their mobile phone, that nobody even knew they needed to be paranoid about that, and that this whole area seems to be ridiculously under-regulated? One text message constitues consent to your location being given away? Am I alone in thinking this is a story?

    “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology” – Terry Pratchett.

  22. Stu said,

    January 28, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    Ben, yeah, fantastic story, but not really bad science. I reckon the dreary squabble cuts to the heart of bad science – ie how not to kid yourself about the best ways to spot it. If we start not believing someone coz someone else said they are right wing libertarians, we might as well just chuck all that finely-honed judgement out the window and spend 1500 quid on a kettle lead.

  23. pv said,

    January 28, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Part of the problem regarding the public understanding of science has, I believe, to do with who is responsible for communicating with the public and what their motivations are. The normal outlet for public information is the mass media; newspapers, television and, more recently, the Internet.

    Some journalists, I know, get particularly fed up when confronted with the view that they are all a bunch of liars and propagandists, or manipulative mischief makers. I was taken to task very recently by a friend at the BBC and reminded that there are journalists who do a very good job of reporting, conscientiously day in and day out. And while I had to agree, I couldn’t help thinking that the overwhelming majority of school teachers and doctors also do a good job, day in and day out, under less than ideal conditions – but you’d hardly know it if you believe what’s printed in the press on a regular basis. The same goes for scientists.

    Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun once rather disingenuously said “(the Sun) is merely the conduit through which the news flows”. But Mr Kavanagh is a man at the top and I feel that’s really where one needs to look for an answer as to why people are afraid of science (or they “don’t believe in it”). It’s a decision from the people at the top of the news organisations to treat news reporting as entertainment and to dumb everything down th the lowest common denominator. Since it’s very difficult for most individuals to check what is communicated to them by the news media, it’s a relatively easy matter to feed the audience a diet of gossip, opinion and prejudices masquerading as factual news. The likes of Mr Kavanagh are effectively the marketing and advertising executives for all the world’s snake oil vendors.

    An analogy might be made with British school dinners, which were admirably exposed on tv last year in a Jamie Oliver programme. The output of much of the press is the intellectual equivalent of British school dinners. The public not only accepts it – they love it. It doesn’t matter that it is leading to their ignorance and intellectual ill health, I feel they are addicted to it for reasons that are analogous to why school kids love junk food. It’s familiar, easy to digest and provides instant gratification for the desire for easy answers. It also panders to a desire to be frightened.

    I don’t know the answer, only that it is too late by the time students have left school. I know this is over simplistic and optimistic but perhaps our schools could start by taking a similar approach to that employed in weaning the students off junk food – ban the junk science from schools and explain what science is and isn’t. We could also do with a few more programmes on tv like the old Tomorrow’s World, with someone like the old James Burke, to help the public understand how the results of scientific work are everywhere in our modern world, not least in this computer, the food I eat and the medical care I take for granted when I need it. It would also help a bit if there were a few daring tv producers to put people like James Randi on British tv on a regular basis. Just a couple of ideas.

  24. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 28, 2006 at 4:07 pm

    I agree, a problem is, as people have suggested, that as long as a science illiterate population and media are incapable of understanding the real scientific issues, they do retreat to personalities and prejudices.

  25. pv said,

    January 28, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Fred Bloggs, I agree with most of what you’ve written, I think.
    I also take the view that ignorance leads to fear and that the press panders to that ignorance for it’s own profit. In that regard I take the following linked article to be an informed view of GM crops, unlike the deluge of alarmist propaganda put out by politically motivated groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth, ably abetted by the press.

    www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5323362&no_na_tran=1

    Here’s just one quotation from that article which is worth reading in its entirety:
    “Today scientists use thermal neutrons, X-rays, or ethyl methane sulphonate, a harsh carcinogenic chemical—anything that will damage DNA—to generate mutant cereals. Virtually every variety of wheat and barley you see growing in the field was produced by this kind of “mutation breeding”. No safety tests are done; nobody protests. The irony is that genetic modification (GM) was invented in 1983 as a gentler, safer, more rational and more predictable alternative to mutation breeding—an organic technology, in fact. Instead of random mutations, scientists could now add the traits they wanted.”

  26. Bakeley said,

    January 28, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    I agree, a problem is, as people have suggested, that as long as a science illiterate population and media are incapable of understanding the real scientific issues, they do retreat to personalities and prejudices.

    All the more reason why it doesn’t look very good that all these people promoting science are non-scientist ex-trots. They may or may not be up to no good, but it just doesn’t look good. If they were all scientists I wouldn’t find that suspicious, but looking around on Google, very few of them actually are. What were the recruiting criteria that produced all these organisations promoting science, a Science Media Centre, Sense About Science, etc, where the staff are more notable for being from Living Marxism, than for being working scientists?

  27. Bakeley said,

    January 28, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    I looked up Ben Goldacre and Fiona Fox (“Science Media Centre”) on Google, to see if they were connected. I got this, from an article about Goldacre in the magazine “The Scientist”.

    www.the-scientist.com/article/display/18831/

    “Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Center – an independent organization that aims to improve the relationship between science and the people who report on it – says Goldacre “is the champion of the scientific community, which says a lot about their frustrations with the news media.” Fox says she’d like to see him take on more of the big issues within science, as he has done with recent pieces on the MMR vaccine. “Too often his critique can focus on the obscure, confining him to the margins of the newspaper.””

    Now, firstly, it’s clear that she’s not actually read much Bad Science, because it’s been very big on MMR since the very beginning, but also, is it possible she is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to persuade Goldarse to pursue her own anti-green political agenda?

  28. pv said,

    January 28, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    Ben, I think the mobile phone tracking is a good story. Yesterday I listened to the “You and Yours” interview on the Beeb wb site and I have to agree it is a rather worrying and sinister development. I’m not sure it’s a bad science story though. It does perhaps illustrate a public ignorance of the uses to which this technology can be put, and one can legitimately ask why this isn’t a very big issue in the press. Why isn’t it a news priority?

  29. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 28, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    [paranoia]

    Bakeley — does this praise from one of *them* mean Ben’s part of the conspiracy too..?

    *cue dramatic chords

    [/paranoia]

    Andrew.

  30. RS said,

    January 28, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    The problem with this whole LM/SAS conspiracy theory is that it depends on such a small number of people being connected.

    So the organisation Sense About Science which is “chaired by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Taverne, and whose board contains such prominent scientists as Professor Sir Brian Heap, Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie and Sir John Maddox” employs some people that have connections with a political/media organisation with pro-technology/science views. Oh. my. god.

    “SAS has set up a working party on peer review, which is chaired and hosted by the Royal Society. One of its members is Tony Gilland,29 who is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas, a contributor to both LM and Spiked”

    Clearly this evil cabal of political cultists has inflitrated the Royal Society and brainwashed them.

    “it is surely no accident that they only report on issues that just happen to be very profitable”

    It is surely no accident that they only report on issues that just happen to be very _controversial_. Look, I thought these people were politically motivated, it’s a bit rich to claim they’re driven by the beliefs of a political cult _and_ by where the money is. And what about the Royal Society, the board of trustees of these organisations, etc? Surely these people work for these organisations _because_ their political beliefs align them with them, not in order to subvert these organisations.

    And why are most not scientists? Because scientists don’t work in these silly PR organisations, they’re scientists!

    “My point is who gets to decide what groups like these and others report to the media?”

    Whoever runs them, duh! Just like any other think tank.

    RE: the phone thing

    i was actually aware of these companies, but I hadn’t really thought about how easy it was. Well done for highlighting it. In defence of that guy from the company, at least he _sounded_ concerned.

  31. amoebic vodka said,

    January 28, 2006 at 9:30 pm

    *shrugs*

    gah…we don’t have shoulders

    *wibbles a bit*

    George Monbiot came up with the Frankenfood headline…not sure where anyone gets the idea it was some kind of pro-science conspiricy. That word alone was very effective at promoting the anti-GM crop view to the public, irrespective of the scientific ideas for and against individual projects.

    And bring back the old Tomorrow’s World – the live demonstrations were great.

  32. Adam Bowie said,

    January 29, 2006 at 1:57 am

    Getting back on track for a moment…

    I can’t find a link to a reference for this story at the moment, but there was a chap from the Scottish Sunday Mail on Five Live a few minutes ago talking about a case that’s just come to court in Scotland about a somebody from the RAF using his mobile phone to track a woman he was stalking by gaffer-taping it under her car and then using one of these phone services to follow her from his keyboard.

    Given the size of mobiles, and the fact that you can pick up a Pay As You Go set for under thirty quid, suddenly it becomes a very cheap tracker which no amount of precautionary texts is going to stop. All you have to do is leave it on silent and go back to recharge it once in a while. Very scary.

  33. steve mosby said,

    January 29, 2006 at 11:44 am

    With regard to what Adam said, if you were prepared to spend a bit more, you could go to your friendly neighbourhood spy shop, buy a doctored handset and present it to your girlfriend as a present. Then, not only could you track her movements, but you could listen to conversations she was having wherever she was simply by phoning it. But although we’d all frown at this sort of behaviour – what can be done to limit it?

    Ridiculous scare-mongering perhaps, but you can look at something like Google Earth, and imagine ten years down the line, with this kind of technology linked into that…

  34. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 11:48 am

    this kind of technology is already linked to that, and world-tracker.com can already export its data to google earth.

  35. steve mosby said,

    January 29, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    Ah – teach me to post without checking things first.

  36. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    the lesson of google is, everything is worse than you think. for example, i somehow completely missed this story last year about the blairs protecting leo against measles mumps and rubella by having a pendulum dangled over him by a crystal healer:

    www.badscience.net/?p=50

  37. Adam Bowie said,

    January 29, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    The Sunday Mail story is up on their website now:

    tinyurl.com/8hybm

    The writer of the story mistakenly seems to believe that the technology being used was GPS. The phone was found when some garage engineers called the bomb squad when they saw the device during a service.

  38. amoebic vodka said,

    January 29, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    Does anyone know how accurate the phone location is vs GPS? We know GPS becomes far less accurate when in built up areas, but presumably here is where a mobile becomes more accurate as the phone masts are closer together.

    Stalking people with technology is surprisingly easy. Partly, we suspect, because people don’t realise how often they give away ‘private’ data and data that reveals their location. Location? Cash machine, using plastic, CCTV etc… there’s already been cases of security guards misusing CCTV for instance:

    www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/13/cctv_men_jailed/

    This is not quite the same as companies giving out information you thought was private however.

  39. Robert Harris said,

    January 29, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    To get back to Ben’s article, the problem with gadgets like mobile phones these days isn’t just that the average person doesn’t understand how they work; even if you understand the principles, their real modus operandi is controlled by a computer program and is invisible. And every one has different quirks which mean, say, that if you master one model of mobile phone, that doesn’t necessarily help you use the facilities of a different model.

    And, because of the invisiblility, you have to take so much more on trust. For example, how can you know that a particular Big Brother contestant gained the most votes?

  40. Frank said,

    January 29, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Firstly: apologies for inadvertently kicking off a ruck about the SAS group and whatnot. I’ll keep to topic from now on.

    Secondly: GPS accuracy is fairly bad, for several reasons. The US purposefully build inaccuracy into the signal so that their weapons will be more accurate than their enemy’s, which is fair enough. I imagine those in-car navigation systems use some clever code to make an educated guess as to which road they are on, but I’m not sure.
    I’ve used GPS for field research, and to get pin-point accuracy you need a secondary radio link to an OS beacon. The beacon is fixed and measures the US-mandated inaccuracy throughout the day, which you then download off the web later, subtract from your readings and hey presto! – accuracy down to a few centimetres. All you need is a 3m high aerial, huge batteries (about 3kg worth for 8 hours), and the ability to stay still for 10 minutes every time you lose the radio signal.

    Phone tracking probably relies upon triangulating the three masts which show the strongest signal for your phone. Higher density in cities = higher precision (NOT accuracy!), but I imagine you might achieve an equally strong signal on four, five, six masts. Add to this the problem of 2D vs 3D info: at a particular grid ref I could be shopping for diamond rings at ground level or cheating on my wife in the flats above…
    Then there’s different companies…I remember in Bangor, no one on Orange could get a decent signal but my Vodaphone always seemed fine.

    Tracking via phone: what’s the point? Thieves track me to see when I leave the flat? 9-5 is a good guess. Want to know where I work? Phone me up and say you’re the Inland Revenue checking my employment history. Want to know where I eat? See my receipts in the trash. Anyone who knew me well enough to nick my phone and return it probably knows me and my routine anyway.

    Yes, one text a day isn’t too much to ask, but I don’t think there’s any *danger* here.

  41. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    actually i was quite pleased to see my girlfriend hasn’t been to see her ex in east london once over the last few days.

  42. amoebic vodka said,

    January 29, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    On the accuracy vs precision..ssssh, we know the difference really. The GPS signal can be accurate to within 5cm if you are allowed to use enough satellites to triangulate, but car GPS systems are restricted to fewer than the military use. We think the height measurement is a little less precise, but is still fairly close to that.

    Stalking’s easy – how else would we know Ben was at a computer at 8.35pm today…

  43. God said,

    January 30, 2006 at 10:27 am

    I am watching you all. I know what you are doing – and I don’t like it.

  44. Delster said,

    January 30, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    re accuracy in built up areas due to greater density of antenna. That sometime can lead to a false location result due to a phone connecting to an non adjacent antenna.

    This can be due to traffic loading, radio shadow etc meaning a mobile will get a better connection on an antenna thats actually further away,

    GPS will almost always give a more accurate location.

    Re comment number 5

    “get over yourselves guys, we’re not better or even cleverer than everyone else, we just have more learning.Anyone can access learning, that’s why it’s democratic. So, actually, actively involving the wider community (all the stakeholders in project management parlance) is a) good and b) not doomed to failure as long as the scientists involved actually engage with the process and provide the required knowledge to the people involved. We’ve got to stop with our weird hybrid victim and superiority complex.”

    This only works if the Stakeholders in question actually give a damn about learning about science. Most people i know are just not as interested as the kind of people who log onto this site (or sites like it)

    So point B only works if the scientists are there to impart the knowledge AND the public are prepared to absorb the knowledge.

  45. Ian said,

    January 30, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    replying to God… if you were that fussed, then I’d expect to get hit by lightning.

    I remember a line in _A Short History of Nearly Everything_, suggesting that the true moment showing the triumph of science over religion came when churches started to fit lightning conductors…

  46. God said,

    January 30, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    “replying to God… if you were that fussed, then I’d expect to get hit by lightning.”

    No, I have a worse punishment for you than that…I know what you use as a lighting conductor, you evil man

  47. God said,

    January 30, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    lightning

    even God gets things wrong sometimes

  48. God said,

    January 30, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    creating humans was my biggest mistake, that bunch of ungrateful sods

  49. Organic Potatoes said,

    January 30, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Just who does God think he is?

  50. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 30, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    i’m going to delete that sexist joke, just because i can.

  51. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 30, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    done. that felt good.

  52. Andy said,

    January 30, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Ben,

    The one thing that really surprises me about this mobile phone tracking is that you seem to have not been aware of it previously. While it may not have been mentioned in the mainstream media except as a plot device in some drama it’s not exactly a new technology. This tracking has been around for a while, it has been relatively easily accessible for a couple of years now. Raising it’s profile and making sure that people know that it’s not just fiction is a good thing but hardly counts as news.

    As privacy issues go personally I’m far more concerned about the plans to put RFID (Sorry, contactless proximity devices) into our passports and ID cards combined with the reports that a similar system in Dutch passports has already been cracked.
    I’ve always known my phone could be tracked. If that’s ever an issue I know I can switch it off or leave it behind. I really wouldn’t want someone to be able to get my name, data of birth, nationality and photo from 10 meters away without me knowing it. This is especially true when I’m overseas and fare more likely to have a passport on me.

  53. amoebic vodka said,

    January 30, 2006 at 6:53 pm

    Buy a tinfoil hat for your passport (and everything else that’s going to have RFID). Or, on thinking about it, buy shares in foil making companies. Little hats for your clothes labels, fruit, magazines etc…

    The Dutch thing:

    www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/30/dutch_biometric_passport_crack/

    if anyone’s interested.

  54. Andy said,

    January 30, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    But as the story a couple of weeks pointed out, MIT have shown that tin foil hats don’t work very well.

    My solution was far simpler, renew your passport early and hope that in 10 years they have sorted this mess out ;-)

  55. Michael Harman said,

    January 30, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Andy said “I’ve always known my phone could be tracked. If that’s ever an issue I know I can switch it off …”. As I understand matters, a switched-off mobile phone is still tracked. You have to take the battery out or wrap it in tin-foil to stop that.

  56. Andy said,

    January 30, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    The phone can’t be tracked when off. The tracking works measuring the signal strength at several base stations and triangulating the position. This works because the phone is sends a signal periodically to the network so that it can easily be located when there is a call.
    When off the phone does not send these signals and so can’t be tracked.

  57. amoebic vodka said,

    January 31, 2006 at 10:24 am

    If someone was tracking us by mobile phone, they’d be disappointed. We keep leaving it at home and forgetting to charge it. In fact, they would thing we’re very lazy and never leave our vodka bottle…er…

  58. Boris (Not logged in because I'm in a bunker) said,

    January 31, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I completely agree with delster’s comment about people not giving a damn about science. We all encounter it and I, for one, find it quite disheartening to be listening to same people who worry about GM and mobile phone masts telling you that they aren’t intereted when you give them your scientific opinion on these subjects (or what I call “setting the record straight) – people like to believe in scare stories. The media have completely wiped out the respect for the learned and professional opinion of scientists in the public’s eyes so that’s why they couldn’t care less what you say – even courts of law now think they have the right to rule on what is conclusive scientific evidence these days.

  59. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    January 31, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Courts of law do have the right to rule on what is conclusive scientific evidence. The whole purpose of tribunals of fact is that they have to decide on any matter which is material to concluding their cases. The good thing is, though, that the Courts are obliged to follow rules which, in conception even if not to the letter, follow scientific method. Because they’re there to do the same thing – make truth judgements. In doing so, the Court will usually take expert evidence from actual scientists. As in the ‘battling parents’ MMR case, where Sumner J was backed up by Thorpe and Sedley LJJ on his weighing of the value of the expert witnesses presented by both sides.

  60. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Science often means that srmeone has invented a new invisible thing that can kill you (for instance electricity). I think it’s understandable that scientists aren’t trusted. There’ve been an awful lot of untrustworthy scientists. The tobacco lobby for a start…

  61. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    Oh, in America there’s a statutory requirement, not entirely enforced when I last heard, for really good location of cell phones that make emergency calls – E911 is the catch-tag, I think. It may seem unfair if phone companies don’t have the technology for this function, which is not what their product was designed for; of course it can be done just by bolting a GPS onto every phone but that would put the price up considerably, even now.

  62. AitchJay said,

    January 31, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    There were Bali bombers caught in Indonesia using this tecnology, to much rejoicing here in Australia, since they had killed 88 Australians..

    I still don’t like anyone knowing what I’m up to; apart from me.

  63. Hatter said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    What’s sinister about genetic crops is that corporations with a very poor track record of concern for safety are the ones pushing this stuff into the market. Even if they didn’t have that track record, they’d all still have a strong motivation to wipe out ordinary crops in favour of their genetic cash cow.

  64. Kepich said,

    January 31, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    I understand that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was caught in Pakistan in 2003 basically because he kept the same SIM card despite frequently chaging his mobile phone.

  65. Boris (Not logged in because I'm in a bunker) said,

    January 31, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    ‘Courts of law do have the right to rule on what is conclusive scientific evidence. The whole purpose of tribunals of fact is that they have to decide on any matter which is material to concluding their cases. The good thing is, though, that the Courts are obliged to follow rules which, in conception even if not to the letter, follow scientific method. Because they’re there to do the same thing – make truth judgements. In doing so, the Court will usually take expert evidence from actual scientists. As in the ‘battling parents’ MMR case, where Sumner J was backed up by Thorpe and Sedley LJJ on his weighing of the value of the expert witnesses presented by both sides.’

    Courts of law have the right to decide whether reasonable doubt exists or not – they have no right to decide whether or not associations exist or not, that is the job of the scientist through research. Courts of law do have to make judgements, I accept that, but those judgements that are based on lack of research are no judgements at all. In many modern cases involving science – the answer is often ‘we don’t know yet because we need to do more research’ in these cases who is a judge to decide whether a scietific association exists or not?

  66. Andy said,

    January 31, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    The E911 requirements are that mobile phones sold within the US must be locatable to within 100 meters within a fairly tight time constraint (60 seconds?). There is no way that the conventional triangulation based on signal strength is able to meet those requirements in areas with poor coverage.
    A common system seems to be to include an A-GPS system in the phone, the A standing for Assisted. A-GPS works by using the mobile phone network to give the phone the exact time, a rough location (within miles is good enough) and details of which GPS satellites should be in view. This assistance combined with the extra time the phone gets to process data (rather than the once per second requirements of most GPS systems) means that a GPS position becomes possible under conditions where a conventional GPS wouldn’t be able to function and at a lower cost than a full GPSR.
    There are also some systems using more advanced ways of locating the phone based on the signals received at the base stations but they all require the phone to be within range of at least two base stations.

  67. amoebic vodka said,

    January 31, 2006 at 6:46 pm

    Ben’s article was more about who has access to such private information. Just because the police can use it to catch criminals and the emergency services for finding casualties, that doesn’t mean your violent ex/the school bully should be able to use it too.

    “Even if they didn’t have that track record, they’d all still have a strong motivation to wipe out ordinary crops in favour of their genetic cash cow.”

    Um…you do know that the seed from many conventionally bred crops is essentially useless for re-sowing, right?

  68. Frank said,

    January 31, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    I know it’s off topic, but:

    if anyone was wondering how exactly £30 was jusifiable for a kettle lead, check out what happened when I asked about a £500 crocodile clip.

    Bear in mind though, it is capable of quantum particle streams.

    (just click on my name if the link is dead)

  69. pv said,

    February 1, 2006 at 12:30 am

    Hatter, the most sinister and upsetting thing is that public fear is stirred up by certain interested parties for what appear to be prejudicial reasons. See my post (no 25) in this thread regarding anarticle in the Economist about wheat. As far as I can tell, all modern crops (ordinary crops as you describe them) are genetically modified in one way or another. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, assuming we were actually alive in the first place. I’d like to know if anyone has died as a direct result of eating GM food.

  70. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    February 1, 2006 at 11:26 am

    “Courts of law have the right to decide whether reasonable doubt exists or not.”

    I think you’re confusing Courts generically with Criminal Courts specifically. Even then, in any criminal case, a finding of certainty (“reasonable doubt” now being diapproved-of as a formultaion) involves many precedent judgments having to be made (some of which are ‘on the balance of probabilities’).

    Those precedent judgements on evidence presented, whether factual (witness X saw defendant Y commit act Z) or scientific (vaccine X is effective at preventing condition Y) have to be made for the Court to come to a determination. It cannot be right to say, “[Courts] have no right to decide whether or not associations exist or not” becuase no subject can be without the Courts’s purview – if it is material to the case, it needs to be decided. What is important to remember is that merely because a Judge is satisfied of something to a certain standard of proof does not make it so. It is that the evidence before him or her satisfies whatever evidential test is required.

    The Courts agree that “judgements that are based on lack of research are no judgements at all”, which is why they call expert scientific witnesses. If such witnesses state “we don’t know yet because we need to do more research” then the Court must either say that it is not possible to decide that issue on the evidence or, if the evidence is that it is more probable that X is the case than Y but we need to do more research to “know” then the Court will look to see if this meets the required standard of proof, whether ‘certainty’ (probably not) or merely ‘on the balance of probabilities’ (probably does).

    Sorry to go on – given that a constant complaint on the site is of humanities graduates trespassing in science, I thought I should defend the corner of the lawyer watching scientists trespass on the laws of evidence and judicial system…

  71. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    February 6, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Gosh. That killed discussion stone dead, didn’t it?

    Talk about the chilling effect of the law on free speech.

  72. Delster said,

    February 6, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    well to try and kick start things….

    “watching scientists trespass on the laws of evidence and judicial system”

    Scientific theory, and note the word theory, is based on observation of evidence and construction of a theory to fit that evidence, or sometimes, construction of a theory based upon other theories and then a search for evidence of the “truth” of the new theory.

    Once that has been done the results are offered up for others to try and 1.replicate the results and 2. pick great gapping holes in the theory. Provided that 1 is done and 2 is not then it is accepted as a valid theory and added to the body of knowledge….. but and this is important… it is still normally referred to as a theory. The reason for this is that at some point somebody may come up with evidence to disprove it and or replace it with a variation or improvement on the theory.

    There are very few things that a good scientist will point too and say that is a solid fact because we all know that we don’t know everything.

    As for the Court having the right or not to decide if an association exists or not i would way that provided the court consists of scientists with a knowledge of the field the association is within then yes they do. If how ever it is comprised of lawyers and judges with no grounding in the matter then no they don’t.

    To ask a judge to make a ruling on a scientific matter they have no knowledge of is like asking a chemist to preside over a murder trial!

    If the courts are supposed to pass judgement on medical / scientific matters and rule on effectiveness and association then please can we press charges against the homeopaths please??? pretty please with a cherry on top???

    On the subject of homeopaths. The was an article in the irish independant the other day concerning one who convinced a man with a cancerous (malignant) tumor in his neck to give up all other treatments and rely on her’s.

    Needless to say the guy then proceeded to snuff it.

    A court hearing was held to review the case and the Homeopath in question did not show up at the court hearing. So they fined her… how much i hear you cry? a whole 6 euro’s! so about £4

    how it goes from here remains to be seens…..

  73. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    February 8, 2006 at 11:11 am

    “please can we press charges against the homeopaths please??? pretty please with a cherry on top???”

    Bloody hell: I wish. The problem would lie (say, on an indictment for obtaining money by deception) in establishing dishonesty because the stupid buggers are so utterly deluded that they honestly think homeopathy works. Or at least it would be difficult to prove they thought otherwise to the required standard. Otherwise, I’d be the first person ringing the Met and saying “I’d like to report a crime…’ Sometimes ignorance can be a defence.

    Treating Courts as experimental science is probably not a great idea. I can see the proceedings now… “our best theory is that Mr Jones killed the victim with this here knife so we’re going to let him loose with an identical one and see if he confirms our suspicions by following the same pattern.”

    Chemists do preside over trials, I suspect, as Magistrates. Interestingly, in the Roskill Report way back in 1987ish, it was suggested that expert assessors join judges on complex fraud trials (e.g. accountants). The suggestion was never taken up, sadly. Still, Judges and juries are generally there to decide stuff based on the evidence presented. They don’t just wake up one morning and decide to rule arbitrarily on the efficacy of the MMR vaccine. Indeed, they can’t and if they do they get appealed and overturned.

  74. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    February 17, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Bugger. Killed it dead again.

    I’m never posting again due to the fact that I am evidently extremely boring.

  75. detly said,

    February 19, 2006 at 10:44 am

    Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.
    ~ George Benford

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws

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