Invasive Mapping

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  Benjamin Franklin

A new report discusses the ability to use a combination of anonymous cell phone records ben_franklinand GIS data to map areas of extreme poverty in developing countries.(1)  It’s an interesting article, probably less for that specific use than for other things the technology could and probably is being used to do.

The underlying concept is simple. All cell phone calls go through cellular networks. The network host knows the originating phone number, the destination phone number and the cell tower where the call originated. Additionally, smart phones transmit location information.

The wrinkle is having a computer system able to do quick lookups on the numbers being called.  One can learn about poverty by looking for calls to food banks, government assistance agencies and private, nonprofit support groups.

What could someone know about you using this process?

  • Your daily routine. Do you jog? What route do you take at what time of day?
  • Have you called a divorce lawyer?
  • Where you bank? Have investments?
  • Are you planning a trip?

A single call means nothing. A pattern of calls means everything. The cell data may be anonymous, but if a cluster of calls originate from one location, that’s probably where you live, and anyone could google the address to get your name and family information. A secondary cluster would indicate where you work or attend school.

How much do you really want others to know about your life?

Remember, the US has much weaker privacy protection for its citizens than do countries in Europe or Latin America. Why is that?


  1. Neeti Pokhriyal, Damien Christophe Jacques. Combining disparate data sources for improved poverty prediction and mapping. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 114 (46): E9783 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1700319114
  2. University at Buffalo. “New mapping technique can help fight extreme poverty: Researchers harness big data to improve poverty maps, a much-needed tool to aid world’s most vulnerable people.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 December 2017. <>.

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