OPINION20 October 2009

Is someone tracking my mobile?

Stumbling across a Times article entitled ‘Are foreign governments tracking your mobile?’, we’ve been pondering what the future might hold for mobile as a research medium.

After stumbling across an article in The Times the other day entitled ‘Are foreign governments tracking your mobile?’, Mediawatch has been pondering what the future might hold for mobile as a research medium.

Our first reaction to the headline was to recall Andrew Marr’s advice on how to read newspapers: in his book on journalism, Marr suggests that whenever a headline is a question, you should try answering ‘no’, because if the answer were ‘yes’, the writer would probably not have phrased it as a question.

But The Times’ Mark Frary claims that some companies are worried enough that foreign governments (for ‘foreign’, read ‘Chinese’) are tracking their employees’ mobiles that they’ve issued them with special signal blocking pouches to put their phones in when they visit China.

It works both ways, of course – your own employer might equally want to use the phone they’ve issued you with to keep tabs on where you are.

If you’re carrying a mobile, then your incoming and outgoing calls can be tapped, your approximate location can be plotted by looking at which transmission masts you’re in range of (the same way some phones find your location on a map) and if you’ve got a smartphone with GPS, your location can be pinned down with a great deal more accuracy.

Clearly mobile offers massive potential for “in the moment” research, location and event-based research, personalisation and so on. But The Times’ story shows how these things can also seem a bit creepy, and raise unexpected questions, which could make it much tougher to get people to take part in mobile phone-based research.

It’s worth treading carefully because, as anyone working in behavioural targeting can probably tell you, it doesn’t take that many headlines with question marks at the end to make people suspicious.