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

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 Mitchell314 ( 1576581 ) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:35PM (#39736737)
    Grant money also goes to help paying salaries, student tuition, equipment, and additional workers. Don't forget about the money for the database, db administrators/developers, computers, and all the other technical work involved for four years. Also, the school also takes out a large chunk, ours tacks up to 50% extra on top of the subtotal.

    You'd be surprised how expensive research can get. Not that I'm justifying that it should be that expensive, just saying there's a lot involved in the budget. Not everybody has access to cheap, available undergrads capable of doing the work. :p
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:35PM (#39736747)
    It's not without their knowledge. According to TFA, they meet back up to sign thorough consent forms with their parents each year. It's just not in the front of their minds all the time. (Or, at least, that's the hope.)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:40PM (#39736835)

    Additionally, in Texas (where the study took place), only one party has to consent to the recording.

    So long as a wire, oral, or electronic communication—including the radio portion of any cordless telephone call—is not recorded for a criminal or tortious purpose, anyone who is a party to the communication, or who has the consent of a party, can lawfully record the communication and disclose its contents.

    Texas Penal Code 16.02.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:45PM (#39736929) Journal
    You can be arrested for distributing child pornography if you are in the USA. See Slashdot back stories for a specific example...
  • wow bad summary. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:49PM (#39736957)

    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.

  • by Hadlock ( 143607 ) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:50PM (#39736973) Homepage Journal

    My friend works for that research group. They upgrade the teen's phones every year to the newest "flagship" phone. Keep in mind that the kids opting in to this need a reason to continue with the project. That means a new iPhone2, iPhone 3, iPhone 3S, iphone4, iPhone4s etc. I think most of the kids switched off blackberries a long time ago.
    I'm not sure how big the research team is, but there's at least 4 full time non-students in the group. They don't keep an archive of all the data, interestingly. Probably for privacy reasons. They do classify the data in to positive/negative text messages, and identify who in the group are the alphas, betas, etc.
    I honestly wouldn't worry about the kid's data privacy/rights, knowing who works in that group, they're all a really good group of people and outstanding citizens overall.

  • 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 JustSomeProgrammer ( 1881750 ) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @02:52PM (#39737025)
    Yep. Won't someone think of the children and protect them from being exploited by... themselves?
  • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Thursday April 19, 2012 @03:39PM (#39737713)

    So all the kids who take pictures of themselve are pedophiles according to the US laws ?

    Yep. What's even better is that they are charged as adults for creating child pornography of themselves.

Did you hear that two rabbits escaped from the zoo and so far they have only recaptured 116 of them?