Science|Business: In Pursuit of Precision and Privacy

Two Estonian companies are blazing a trail in harvesting the sensitive location data being captured by mobile phone networks.

Until very recently, Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism had little idea how many visitors the country’s 17,000 islands receive from neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. Now it does, thanks to a novel high-tech solution developed by two Estonian companies with expertise in cellphone data analytics and cyber-security.

Working together, Positium and Cybernetica have figured out a way to use the detailed location data captured by Indonesia’s mobile phone networks to track the number of visitors to the country, while protecting individuals’ privacy and the telcos’ commercial interests. This new approach potentially paves the way for governments worldwide to use the precise location data being captured by mobile phone networks to help with everything from improving transport and tourist infrastructure to locating medical clinics and planning vaccination programmes.

“Phone network data about human mobility is sensitive data: it has many privacy concerns, as well as mobile operator business secrets in it, which is why it's not so widely used,” explains Erki Saluveer, CEO of Positium, a strategic partner with the Mobility Lab of the University of Tartu and a specialist in calculating statistics from mobile positioning data. “In every country we start with, the first issue you have to overcome is this data sensitivity and data privacy.”

How did two small companies from Estonia win the confidence of the government of Indonesia, one of the world’s most populous countries?  One of the key challenges in harnessing the location data being captured by cellphone networks for official statistics was to avoid double-counting visitors from other countries. As a tourist’s mobile phone can roam across different operator’s networks, Positium needed a way to track individual handsets without compromising the owner’s privacy and operator’s commercially sensitive data.

Read the full article in Science|Business.