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Sioux Falls Using Big Brother Phone Data to Map Traffic, Improve Road Planning

Steve Young report that the City of Sioux Falls is buying your phone data to track your movements around town to make your morning commute and trip to the Mall smoother:

Cellphone towers pinging phones as motorists travel in and around Sioux Falls are producing valuable information on the routes drivers take and how fast they get to their destinations.

It’s data transportation planners are increasingly using to help predict future road use and demands — how long to make access ramps on and off the interstates, for example, or how many turning lanes to include on those ramps [Steve Young, "Cell Phone Data Helps Map Future of Driving in City," that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.01.03].

Don't worry: Sioux Falls government officials never get a look at your personally identifying data. Heavens no: the private companies gathering your data strip your name and number from their data product before the sale, and they fuzz out your exact start and end points. But they don't have to:

[Sioux Falls ACLU director Heather] Smith said cellphone data that tracks locations could reveal if a person is a weekly church goer, a heavy gambler, a regular at a gym, or even who he or she appears to spend time with.

“It’s important to note that Congress has not legislated a standard for cellphone tracking. It’s largely dependent on state by state,” she said. “So generally speaking, the use of individual cellphone data could leave Sioux Falls residents with concerns about government access to their private information” [Young, 2015.01.03].

Mayor Huether could buy more detailed information about Scott Ehrisman's weekly travel habits. Mayor Huether could buy more detailed data, divide distance by time, mass-mail speeding tickets to every phone user who gets across town in under fifteen minutes. He could buy cell phone data to calculate road usage and send every driver a bill for road usage, essentially turning every street into a toll road. No federal legislation stops him. The Obama Administration says (and the courts so far agree) cell phone users have no reasonable expectation of locational privacy. The only things stopping Mayor Huether from such invasions of privacy are cost and good will:

At this point, Sioux Falls officials don’t have any plans to seek more such available data.

“Cost is always a factor in everything,” he said. “We’re seeing communities that are starting to go down that road and, from my standpoint, we’re watching what’s happening with them and how they’re using the data. It’s something that we would look at maybe going forward in the future” [Young, 2015.01.03].

Am I a conservative or a liberal if I say we need a harder check on government power here? Are our Congressional delegation and our state legislators insufficiently conservative or insufficiently liberal for not advocating a ban on the sale of our private phone data?

Or is privacy a dead concept, a small price to pay for being able to text "I'm on my way!" five minutes from home as corporations commoditize our life histories?


  1. lee schoenbeck 2015.01.05

    Kind of scary - not all peepers have pure motives

  2. larry kurtz 2015.01.05

    Right, Lee. Pot: meet crack.

  3. larry kurtz 2015.01.05

    Anyone believing Marty Jackley isn't surveilling every South Dakota resident is delusional.

  4. JeniW 2015.01.05

    Will they be able to track down someone who robs a casino while carrying a cell phone?

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.05

    JeniW, conceivably, yes, if the suspect has his phone on, and if the cops know the suspect's number, surveillance game on.

    Lee, I'd get a kick out of seeing the data for legislators' cell phones during session.

  6. John 2015.01.05

    Knowing the alleged suspects' phone number is not a firm requirement; rather knowing the time window of the offense should result in a list of phone numbers signaling to the towers at the time - then triangulated to the scene of the crime. Good police work should then reduce the phone number list to the usual suspects. It ain't rocket science - yet it assumes the use of a registered phone as opposed to a stolen or disposable one.

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