ONS says will gather future census data by tracking mobile phones

The Office of National Statistics recently teamed up with Vodafone UK to study commuting patterns of mobile phone users as part of its preparations for the next population census post 2021.

The ONS said that data obtained by observing commuting patterns of mobile phone users via timestamps and locations corresponded with results of the 2011 census.

The new attempt by the ONS to track personal information of citizens via their mobile phones is part of its preparations towards conducting all population censuses after 2021 via alternate methods. So far, ONS has conducted every census using questionnaires and feedback forms and will use the same during the next census in 2021.

The new move, the ONS says, will help the organisation improve the statistics that are part of its census data, and will also help it understand where people live and work. If the trials, of which many more are to come, are successful, then the traditional means of conducting census will be scrapped in favour of the new data-mining approach.

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'This research has shown, for local authority (LA) areas, that mobile phone data (MPD) flows and 2011 Census travel to work (TTW) data have good correlation for longer distance commuter flows over a magnitude of around 100 commuters,' said the ONS.

The office added that it 'anticipates accessing more non-disclosive MPD for the investigation into commuter flows. These new data might be produced using the traces from mobile subscribers on alternative mobile networks to the data used in this research.'

During the recent experiment in conjunction with Vodafone UK, the ONS used the location of masts or cell-towers that mobile users frequently connect to, to estimate the geographical areas containing the usual residence and place of work for their subscribers. The experiment was conducted on Vodafone's mobile subscribers above the age of 18.

While this points to the fact that the government is serious about tracking every mobile phone to gather intelligence about every citizen, it remains to be seen if citizens will be given the opportunity to opt out of such a blatant data-mining exercise that may undermine their privacy as well as their intent to remain anonymous.

According to Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN.com, this exercise by the ONS 'feels like a cost-cutting exercise combined with an opportunistic data grab'.

'This government experiment in tracking people’s movements between their homes and places of work using mobile phone data is 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.

'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.

“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,' he adds.