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The Phones Outsmarting Us

While Apple and Google are in trouble with the privacy issue when they track where and when people use their mobile phones, the scientists near us at MIT are digging out insightful facts of human behavior from their cellphone usage data. After knowing how wide and deep of our behavior can be captured with the cellphones we are using, I began to wonder whether we just invented something that is much smarter than ourselves.

According to the article from Wall Street Journal, Dr. Alex Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has tracked 60 families via sensors and software on their smartphones—recording their movements, relationships, moods, health, calling habits and spending. In this wealth of intimate detail, he projected the behavioral patterns of millions of people ranging from how they interact at home, how they work and play.

The research will improve many social perspectives ranging from public health, urban planning to marketing. For marketers, the most valuable piece of these finding is that we can identify “influencers” who are most likely to make others change their minds with the data, and further leverage them to trigger a brand switch or behavior changes. Some cellphone companies are already using these techniques to predict—based on a customer’s social circle of friends—which people are most likely to defect to other carriers.

As a highly personalized device, smartphones present unique behavioral patterns of the user. The well-designed device  logs calling data, messaging activity, search requests and online activities. Many smartphones also come equipped with sensors to record movements, sense its proximity to other people with phones, detect light levels, and take pictures or video. It usually also has a compass, a gyroscope and an accelerometer to sense rotation and direction. Therefore, it raise more concerns about user privacy as well, especially when more and more marketers realize its power and start calling to its help for more in-depth understanding of customers.

Dr. Pentland and other scientists employing smartphone data stated that they will only utilize these gathered data for public welfare and academic researches. However, the popularity of location-based applications on mobile devices will continue reinforcing marketers’ desires to gain insights from cellular data, thus related research aiming for business growth will definitely come into sights and raise privacy issues again.

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