Mobile phone tracking data ‘could replace census questions’.

A recent UK government announcement just might prompt a few citizens to fetch their tinfoil hats: the Office of National Statistics (ONS), what in other countries might be referred to as the “census bureau,” has revealed that they’ve tested a data mining project that tracks mobile phone users’ location-based information.

In an effort to test the waters of streamlining the census, the ONS experimented with some key regions in the UK to see if they could determine commuter behavior with some measure of accuracy. Using the citizens’ mobile phones as tower ‘pingers’, they sought to find out what kinds of travel behavior users engaged in for work.

Mobile phone tracking data ‘could replace census questions’, says Office Of National Statistics, UK

Statisticians believe the anonymised data could one day replace census questions in England and Wales.

Honesty required

Questions about the daily commute might seem like they’d be outside the scope of the government’s business, but that’s actually far from true. The UK census has relied on respondents’ voluntary answers to these kinds of travel questions in order to ensure that the budget and planning are in place to maintain critical infrastructure and mass transit. Without honest answers to questions about where you go each day and how you get there, the government could underestimate the need in your region.

End to paper forms

The goal of the experiment is broader than just commuter traffic, though. With the upcoming 2021 census, the government aims to make this one the last that will rely on paper forms and postal mail. This process helps test out the potential for using other electronic and tech means for determining necessary public information and demographic markers.


Of course, with every shift to an increasingly digital world, cybersecurity concerns rear their collective ugly heads. In this instance, the information is already being gathered, but the ONS has found an anonymized, repurposed use for it that doesn’t involve opening up citizens to threats to their identifying information. As government agencies around the world that have already suffered data breaches can attest, every new citizen account is a new threat to their personal data security.