Your smartphone knows you better than you do

Got the sniffles? Planning a vacation overseas? Thinking about switching political parties? Your smartphone can be used to predict these things before you're even aware of them

"Know thyself" is Socrates' ancient dictum. If the Greek philosopher were alive today, though, he might rephrase that to "Know thy smartphone" -- because, as it turns out, your smartphone may know more about you than, well, you do.

Think I'm being unusually silly? Not really. Let me explain.

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Last week I wrote about the controversy embroiling Apple and Google smartphones and the location data they collect (despite Steve Jobs's purported claim that "we don't track anyone -- the info circulating around is false"). That controversy may eventually lead to a long-overdue discussion about the implications of mobile tracking.

It turns out that location tracking is nothing compared to the kind of intelligence-gathering smartphones can be used for. In another story that's equal parts cool and creepy, the Wall Street Journal's Robert Lee Hotz reports on how researchers at MIT and elsewhere are studying how smartphones can be used to predict all kinds of human behavior.

By studying how and where people use their phones, academics can parse out patterns of human behavior that let them predict things like mental and physical health, cultural movements, financial activity, and international travel. Got the flu? Your smartphone may know before you do.

The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus, research shows. ... [At] MIT, scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn't know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick.

Other researchers parsed Twitter data and discovered a correlation in the emotional content of tweets and the Dow Jones average. Twitter mood swings matched changes in the Dow almost 90 percent of the time and nearly a week early, per the folks at Indiana University.

Meanwhile, academics at Northeastern studied travel data for some 100,000 European cell phone users, gnawing their way through more than 16 million call dates, times, and positions. Their conclusion?

Taken together, people's movements appeared to follow a mathematical pattern. The scientists said that, with enough information about past movements, they could forecast someone's future whereabouts with 93.6 percent accuracy.

Let that last one sink in for a minute. They aren't saying they know where you've been; they're saying they can guess with impressive certainty where you're going next.

Lest you think this is just an academic exercise, this kind of data analysis is being used by wireless carriers to predict who's more likely to jump carriers, and may soon influence how drugs are marketed or political campaigns are conducted. This data can also be used in more positive ways -- to prevent the outbreak of disease, reroute traffic, and figure out better ways to design cities and save energy, for example.

What data is being collected from your smartphone, how is it being used, and what can we do about it? All good questions. Let me know if you have any answers.

Writing for the New York Times, University of Chicago economics prof Alan Thaler serves up a perfectly reasonable suggestion about what to do with all this data: Show it to us, too. That way we can use the data to make smarter decisions about how to, say, choose the right smartphone or insurance plan or improve our diets.

Before you say that's impossible, Thaler points out he has been consulting with the British government on a project called Mydata that aims to do precisely that. He writes:

The ability of businesses to monitor our behavior is already a fact of life, and it isn't going away. Of course we must protect our privacy rights. But if we're smart, we'll also use the data that is being collected to improve our own lives.

If we have to live with Big Brother, we could at least share in some brotherly love. I'm sure Socrates would agree.

What data do you wish your smartphone would share? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Your smartphone knows you better than you do," was originally published at Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.