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UT Dallas Professor Captures the Mobile Interactions of 175 Texas Teens 146

Posted by timothy
from the why-would-you-think-that-was-creepy? dept.
nonprofiteer writes "A University of Texas-Dallas developmental psychology professor has used a $3.4 million NIH grant to purchase Blackberries for 175 Texas teens, capturing every text message, email, photo, and IM they've sent over the past 4 years.Half a million new messages pour into the database every month. The researchers don't 'directly ask' the teens about privacy issues because they don't want to remind them they're being monitored. So many legal and ethical issues here. I can't believe this is IRB-approved. Teens sending nude photos alone could make that database legally toxic. And then there's the ethical issue of monitoring those who have not consented to be part of the study, but are friends with those who have. When a friend texted one participant about selling drugs, he responded, 'Hey, be careful, the BlackBerry people are watching, but don't worry, they won't tell anyone.'" This sounds like an American version of the "Seven Up" series.
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UT Dallas Professor Captures the Mobile Interactions of 175 Texas Teens

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  • by PastBlast (2617971)
    How about a $3.4M grant researching how universities and colleges abuse the privacy of teens and students?
    • It doesn't take $3.4M to say "their parents consented to it".

    • by DanTheStone (1212500) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:40PM (#39736831)
      Abuse how? They know what they're getting into. They received the phones with the express condition of the monitoring. And it requires the parents' consent as well as the children's.
      • by networkBoy (774728) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:52PM (#39737023) Homepage Journal

        In which case I see no issue.
        I see it in the same light as my typing this reply on my work provided notebook over my work provided network connection on my lunch break. My employer is entitled to:
        * look at my browser cache
        * look at the proxy logs
        * instruct the proxy to cache all content to/from my machine on the net
        etc.

        These phones are no different. The teens were employed by the study, payment was in the form of an unlimited phone for the duration of employment. The only difference in this case is the whole reason for employment in this case was to allow snooping, as opposed to my employment being to surf the web and look for security related stuff, then apply what I see/learn to our latest products as an attack, and document my success/failure with said attacks.
        -nB

      • by fafaforza (248976)

        Doesn't the summary say they weren't exactly told their activity would be monitored?

        • by geekoid (135745)

          no. It says they aren't reminded.

          And that makes sense, you want to trap as natural flow of information as possible.

        • by skine (1524819)

          How often are you reminded about the terms of the contract that you've signed with you ISP, credit card companies, cell phone provider, Facebook, /., etc.?

          These students were reminded annually, which makes the study more upfront than practically any other signed contract.

    • by stephanruby (542433) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:50PM (#39736971)

      And then there's the ethical issue of monitoring those who have not consented to be part of the study, but are friends with those who have.

      That's the same issue that most people already have with texts and emails.

      If I text you or email you something, I have no idea if you're going to download that message unto your work cell phone, or your work laptop, and besides even if you do own your own cell phone and your own account, I have no guarantee that you won't forward my texts or my emails to others anyway.

    • by macwhizkid (864124) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:50PM (#39736975)

      You do know that R01 grants aren't exactly done on a secret handshake agreement, right? There are so many hoops academic researchers have to jump through to get federal funding. And I say that as someone who almost lost his job the day after landing a big grant, because I accidentally kept someone out of the loop. Your grant proposal gets reviewed by your department people, by the IRB committee, by the university's office of research, and by internal counsel (if needed) BEFORE it ever leaves campus. And then it gets reviewed by program officers, and many impartial and often vicious grant reviewers. And let's not forget that NIH grant success rates in many institutes are approaching 10%, so likely it won't matter at all because you won't get funded.

      And, shockingly, the grant description has been available at NIH.gov since at least 2009: "An important innovation of this phase of the longitudinal study will be careful assessment of social aggression in online communication by providing adolescents with handheld devices and recording and coding the content of their text messaging, Instant Messaging, and email communication." [forbes.com]

      You personally may disagree with the decision that the project is ethical, but you can't argue that they weren't honest with everyone about what they set out to do.

    • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:51PM (#39736999)

      LIkely this went through layers of reviews of what exactly can and can't be done with and to the data, and explicitly spelling out to the people getting the phones just what they've agreed to.

      You can't get this kind of data without 'violating' privacy in some way or another (I use quotes because as long as they've spelled out what exactly they're doing it's not technically a violate0. But that's also what makes it valuable research, you can't know what people are actually using the devices for without asking them to fully tell you. That real information about how devices are actually use is tremendously valuable to all sorts of different groups of people, from the technical side of things to the sociology and history people.

      From TFA they seemed to have based their data gathering on SEC rules for gathering data on employee communications and use the same technology. Essentially the students are being given cell phones the way your employer would give you one, and monitored and data aggregated accordingly. They are yearly paid 50 bucks for visits, sign yearly consent forms and are fully aware of what exactly is being tracked, which, admittedly, produces certain biases in the data. They know they're being monitored and that data will be stored forever, but they may not be entirely aware of what that means, but I guess that's the tricky balance, the data isn't any good if they don't behave normally, but then they might not behave normally if you for every text message you insert one reminding them this call is all being recorded.

      As per TFA "Underwood got a Federal Certificate of Confidentiality from the NIH, exempting the researchers from having to report any discussion of crimes to authorities. But her team is required to monitor the database for talk of suicide or abuse. On a weekly basis, they do a search with a long list of words, including rape, kill myself, or older man. They’ve had to intervene fewer than 5 times, says Underwood."

      Now obviously the researcher in question is a bit naive about just what a public dump of the data could reveal, but then you'd never know any of the stuff this data can tell you without being able to get it.

    • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:56PM (#39737087)

      Or a $3.4 million grant to study how federal grant money is wasted on useless studies.

  • They have to be the coolest kids in school still using an 8730e.

    After this study the RIM marketshare is going to drop immensely.

  • by geekmux (1040042) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:31PM (#39736675)

    US Government response to their measly $3.4 million dollar program monitoring a tiny fraction of the entire country, as they fire up their $3.4 trillion dollar system...

    "Amateurs. You call THAT monitoring? Please..."

    It's really amazing the things that can be built when someone else is paying for it...

    • Assuming costs increase proportional to the number of people being monitored, $3.4 trillion would pay for monitoring 175 million people - it's also probably safe to assume that even though it's the government, the scale is large enough that the cost per person would go down somewhat. So in the end, your $3.4 trillion estimation is probably spot on for a government monitoring program of the United States' roughly 310 million citizens (including the too young, the too old and the too ill).

      • by XiaoMing (1574363)

        Well, no.

        Economies of scale aside (which would imply order of magnitude 10x gains rather than a 2x gain for the population of this country), you also have to keep in mind that the U.S. Government isn't supplying all of us with top of the line (Remember: 4 years ago, and teens have to be willing to use them) cell phones for 4 years.

        And even then, if you do the math, it was a pretty big waste of money just for these 175 teens.

        In short, the bigger you go, the more money you blow when it comes to the government

  • I used to always think of the Blackberry as a leash watching co-workers that had them. But this takes it to the next level:

    When teens have run away from home, the researchers have contacted them on their Blackberries at the behest of their parents, reminding them that "continued access to the Blackberry depends on their parents' continuing to give consent" All runaways have returned home."

    Whoa!

    It makes you wonder if phase 2 would be something like "we also have the ability to send every SMS from the last t

    • by JTsyo (1338447)
      Why would they care if they had run away from home?
    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Most runaway teens eventually return home, so this isn't surprising at all.

      • Sure, the result isn't - but the attempt to use the free blackberry plan as a lure back is pretty novel.

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      It makes you wonder if phase 2 would be something like "we also have the ability to send every SMS from the last two months to your parents".

      It is reward versus punishment (two sides to the same coin)
      There is a difference between "you get to keep your free phone" and "we are going to tell your parents every bad thing you did."

  • When a friend texted one participant about selling drugs, he responded, 'Hey, be careful, the BlackBerry people are watching, but don't worry, they won't tell anyone.'"

    Um.. looks like that one slipped out, somehow.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      It's simple,. why don't people understand it?
      YOu ahve the researcher and the database

      You have teen A with one of the devices.
      You have teen B with a different device
      teen B sends a text to Teen A about drugs.

      Teen A responds with the watch out message.

      The researchers never replied. They didn't tell anyone.

  • Ha ha ha, privacy.

    That's really all I have to say. Slashdot wanted more text though so here it is.

  • When a friend texted one participant about selling drugs, he responded, 'Hey, be careful, the BlackBerry people are watching, but don't worry, they won't tell anyone.'"

    That proves they are telling people.
  • legal or ethical issues here. corporations do not "directly" ask customers about privacy issues either, instead they just bury them in a sarcophagus of TOS, EULA, Third-Party Licensing egreements, and that long triplicate contract we all sign for cellphone endentured servitude. telecommunications corporations lathed and lacquered the bed upon which customers get fucked, quite some time ago. reacting with consternation to any "violations" you may experience at this point should be a laughable endeavor wor
  • Does it bother anyone else that, they obtained a waiver to exempt them from reporting ALL illegal activity except for two keywords, which they decided they MUST search for to fulfil legal requirements.

    Those keywords were "rape" and "older man".

    Really? WTF?

    Our society's priorities are fucked.

    • by MarkGriz (520778)

      That's your criteria for deciding our priorities are fucked?

      How about wasting 3.4 million dollar to study this crap in the first place?

      • by chrismcb (983081)

        How about wasting 3.4 million dollar to study this crap in the first place?

        Why do you think learning about how teenagers think and interact is a waste of money? There are a lot of bad projects out there, but I don't think this is one of them.

        • by MarkGriz (520778)

          Perhaps I should clarify. Spending 3.4 million dollars of private research money to study teenager interaction? Fine.
          Spending 3.4 million of taxpayer money? Not fine. This should not be the role of government.

    • Bad and sexist priorities.

    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Reporting "older man" is pretty silly, but reporting "rape" makes sense to me. 50% isn't bad when you're talking about the US legal system.

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      Does it bother anyone else that, they obtained a waiver to exempt them from reporting ALL illegal activity except for two keywords, which they decided they MUST search for to fulfil legal requirements.

      Those keywords were "rape" and "older man".

      Let us RTFA shall we?:

      But her team is required to monitor the database for talk of suicide or abuse. On a weekly basis, they do a search with a long list of words, including rape, kill myself, or older man. They’ve had to intervene fewer than 5 times, says Underwood.

      They search for more than 2 keyphrases, and they only use the phrases to look at the text more closely. How many teenagers do you know of who talk about an "older man?"

  • by Shooter6947 (148693) <[jbarnes007] [at] [c3po.barnesos.net]> on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:46PM (#39736935) Homepage

    I guess that I don't understand people's privacy objections here. Those people who got free BlackBerries are well aware of the monitoring. Legally, either party may record a conversation and save it and provide it to whomever they want (Though this varies by state). It's the responsibility of the BlackBerry owner to make sure that their friends know the situation -- and based on the last drug-text, they do.

    The bigger question that should be in a /. poll soon, is: "I would give a researcher all of your phone data, text, and other information, in exchange for a free:

    (1) dumb phone
    (2) BlackBerry
    (3) iPhone
    (4) RAZR smart phone
    (5) CowboyNeal "

    • by SIR_Taco (467460)

      I think the problem lies with the headline for the article:
      "UT Dallas Professor Captures the Mobile Interactions of 175 Texas Teens"

      Makes it sound like the Professor built some sort of tower and/or monitoring device and took the information against the will/knowledge of the Blackberry recipient.

      A better (truthful?) headline would have read:
      "UT Dallas Professor Studies the Mobile Interactions of 175 Texas Teens"

    • They were under 18. Some people that age can foresee consequences and make informed decisions. Many can't.

      Their parents also signed the consent forms, but what do you think the odds are that the parents understood what the teens were sending and receiving?

  • wow bad summary. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    These phones were given to 6th graders, with parental consent for a long term study to monitor the behavior of teens on phone as they age.
    There is nothing dirty here. You give someone a black berry, tell them you are going to track everything about it and anonymize out PII (both phone users
    AND people they are contacting)
    Sounds like science experiment to me.

    • Aw, you're spoiling it for all the shallow-thinking whiners who aren't paying attention. Frankly, I would love to have a copy of the dataset. Think of the AI chatbot you could build based on the texts alone...
      • Think of the AI chatbot you could build based on the texts alone...

        A chatbot based on the truncated simperings of adolescent narcissists? That's not curious, it's terrifying...

        "So, like, OMG, like, I said, like, WTF, and he was all, like, LOL, so I was all like, TLDR, and he was all, like, BRB, so I was all, like, BTWIRLSK8BCDCRCTLA!!!!"


        God help us...

        • Think of it, though. A chatbot communicating with potentially millions of adolescents. Learning even more from them. Talking to them. Getting through to them like no adult could ever imagine. Convincing them of things. Leveraging them. Wielding them.
          • Think of it, though. A chatbot communicating with potentially millions of adolescents. Learning even more from them. Talking to them. Getting through to them like no adult could ever imagine. Convincing them of things. Leveraging them. Wielding them.

            You know, if you're trying to make it sound less terrifying, you're not doing a very good job...

            On the other hand, you've given me a great idea for a short story...

  • Can a bunch of teenagers legally sign up for something like this?

    They can't sign contracts, and they're legally too young to truly be able to consent to something like this. And who knows if their parents truly understand the ramifications of this.

    This sounds like it might be in a very grey area, if not outright questionable. Definitely on the creepy side to me.

      • a) their parents consent since they are minors
      • b) beware of aligning your creepiness criteria with commercial mass media standards

      There are vastly creepier and more exploitative things going on than this. War, financial scams, commercially promoted diabetogenic eating habits, deceitful demagoguery for every political persuasion, etc.

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      Can a bunch of teenagers legally sign up for something like this?

      Considering that they were recruited as 9 year olds, no. Both the kids and their parents agreed to be part of the program.

  • at fear mongering and trying to create an issue.

    The teen know they are being monitored,
    And it's research so it's no legally in issue.

  • .... 175 ways of texting: "Titis or STFU".

  • âoeWe look at conversations about sex but we donâ(TM)t open photos for obvious reasons. For all the texting, Iâ(TM)m not sure how much sex stuff theyâ(TM)re actually doing. But weâ(TM)ll ask them in interviews.â

    Sticking your head in the sand does not protect you. The images are still there and as TFA brings up, creates the issue of having possible child porn in possession. I'd really like to know how they got around that, and what agreements were made to (presumably) bend the l

  • by jimmerz28 (1928616) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @03:28PM (#39737553)

    This study should have really been looking at the psychological impact of teens being forced to use BB devices and how they will end up being scarred for life from the ridicule and bullying for not using an iPhone or Android smartphone.

    That large funding must really have helped a lot to bribe those teens to use a BlackBerry in the first place...

  • The Toilet Safety Administration... With the guy... and the lotion... squishahshiquisha... prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt ...... prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt .......... squishahshiquisha

    That episode has made this story completely irrelevant to me as I can only think about a guy in that position... gross...
  • And pretty soon you're talking about real money. My kids are going to have to pay back $3.4M + interest for this study. Stupid.
    • Exactly. Google is doing this for millions of people on Google Voice, and they're getting ad revenue to boot.

  • ...both before and after the Blackberries were added as part of the large grant. I'm not totally comfortable talking about all of it, but I will mention a couple things.

    As far as the size of the grant - imagine paying a cell phone bill for 175 teens for four years and ask yourself where a big chunk of that went.

    The participants themselves were made aware of the level of scrutiny their interactions received every year. In addition to gaining parent consent Every Single Year at a yearly data collection vi

  • ...are along the lines of "I wish I had an iPhone instead of this stupid Blackberry"?

  • These are your tax dollars at work

  • Assuming an average cell phone plan runs them $75/month (taking into account estimated discounted pricing for an account w/ 175 phones), that's $630k for 4 years of service. If they just offered some type of app people could download to their phones which would allow them to be remotely monitored in exchange for $20/mo, I'm sure they'd get more than 175 people that would be willing to be monitored in exchange for the $20. Still, the same 175 people would only cost $168k over four years.

    Better still, mark

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