Does Physics Trump Ethics?

In what I think is a slightly Orwellian experiment, physicists from the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University tracked the locations of 100,000 unknown people outside of the United States for 6 months, in order to determine their movement patterns. They found that about 70 percent of the time, people repetitively visited only 2 locations, which we can assume are work and home. In other words, most people don’t get around much.

The study was top-secret: performed in a mystery industrialized nation with a mystery wireless provider, and using mystery cell phones that had additional built-in tracking devices. Researchers used information from cell phone transmitter tower logs to analyze people’s daily movements. Each tower has a specific zone, and is able to track all motility within that zone (usually about 2 square miles).

While the researchers didn’t know the exact phone numbers, or precisely where the people were, studies performed without the consent of observed persons are illegal in the U.S.

Here’s the surprising part: the researchers were not required to check with an ethics panel beforehand because the experiment involved physics, not biology. With apparently little or no ethical restrictions on experiments, it appears that physics is the best subject for completely unfettered intellectual freedom. This may or may not be a good thing. But maybe that’s why we will all be drinking space beer soon.

To be fair, the researchers who performed the study say more effective monitoring of people’s traveling patterns might be useful in figuring how to stop the spread of diseases, or improve future public transportation design.

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