Bath defends monitoring project after claims it breached privacy

Researchers are accused of disregarding consumer rights, reports Melanie Newman

July 24, 2008

The University of Bath has defended itself against charges that it has breached citizens' privacy by covertly monitoring their movements using signals from their mobile phones and laptop computers.

In an initial phase of its "Cityware" research project, university researchers installed scanners at sites around Bath to monitor radio signals from portable devices that contain Bluetooth. This is a wireless technology that allows devices to communicate over short distances. Data from 10,000 people were collected and stored on a central database.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, attacked the university in a national newspaper this week, accusing it of "an astonishing disregard for consumer rights".

He said that Bluetooth signals could be used to identify individuals.

In a statement to Times Higher Education, project head Eamonn O'Neill, director of postgraduate research studies in Bath's department of computer science, hit back.

Arguing that "pervasive computing is already having a huge effect on us all", he stressed the importance of researching the implications of this in an academic setting.

"There may be those who would prefer that as a society we didn't fund and conduct research into understanding and developing defences against threats to people's digital security.

"Given the highly organised criminal groups who see profits in such threats, that would be a serious mistake," he said.

The university said that the study was analogous to traffic surveyors recording flows of cars; it was designed to analyse "aggregate behaviour" rather than individual movement.

Dr O'Neill added: "The data we recorded have been stored securely and used only for our research purposes. The notion that any agency would seriously consider Bluetooth scanning as a surveillance technique is ludicrous."

His team is finalising a study of people's perceptions of their digital privacy.

Vassilis Kostakos, a former researcher on the project, was quoted in New Scientist in May saying: "Bluetooth is now more of a privacy threat than the more frequently publicised RFID chips (used in London Underground Oyster payment cards)."

He described the Bath project in a research paper as a "prototype" for a system that could be used to monitor movement of inmates in prisons and to "assess the behaviour of terrorist and organised crime groups".

Professor Kostakos, who is now assistant professor at the University of Madeira, defended the research this week. He said in an online posting that the team had collected "a unique serial number, the manufacturer, the type of device (phone, laptop, camera and so on), any services that the device might offer such as internet access".

But he added that "we never know, or even care, who is actually carrying the phone. To usefully invade people's privacy, someone will have to cross-reference multiple data sets: hence our concern should really be who has enough data about us and how they are using them."

Cityware, a collaboration between Bath, Imperial College London, University College London, Vodafone, Nokia and Hewlett-Packard, is tracking the movements of people registered with social networking website Facebook. More than 1,000 scanners around the world detect the presence of Bluetooth-enabled devices.

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