Who's watching you? The ONS via your own personal mobile tracker
Who's watching you? The ONS via your own personal mobile tracker

Statisticians at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have been tracking the movements of thousands of people, albeit anonymised, in what was described as a ‘successful experiment' with Vodaphone that could eventually replace census questions in England and Wales.

The information would replace questions about where people live and work, and their daily commute, but the ONS on its website recognises that prior to taking such a move it would need to conduct "extensive evaluation" of "privacy impacts."

The move is part of government plans for the 2021 census to be the last conducted  using the traditional paper-based questionnaire, with alternative sources of information currently being sought.

Now the ONS is asking for feedback to decide whether the new system will be rolled out more widely.

Among those already expressing concerns is Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com who described this government experiment in tracking people's movements using mobile phone data as a glimpse into a not-too-distant future where “tracking devices in everyone's pockets are routinely used to amass detailed data about our behaviour, privacy be damned.”

In an email to SC Media UK he added, “This creepy and intrusive tracking feels like a cost-cutting exercise combined with an opportunistic data grab. I'm very uncomfortable with the fact that Vodafone customers would have been unaware that they have been tracked in this way.

“If this use of mobile phone data were to be rolled out further, we would certainly call for independent and transparent assessment of any anonymisation methods used to ensure that no personally identifiable information could be extracted from the data.

Migliano concludes: “Even with that in place, there will be many people who are simply not comfortable with this kind of intrusive tracking, for whom there should be some kind of opt-out. What's worrying though is that this appears unlikely, if the current mandatory completion of the census is anything to go by.”

The experiment  took place in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Croydon over a four week period in Spring last year, and did not include under-18s for pay-as-you-go phones, and the results showed a decline in people leaving their home borough to work compared to the 2011 census.