The latest anonymized crowd movement data from O2 UK shows that millions of Britons visited palaces and piers over the Platinum Jubilee Bank Holiday. The O2 Motion data is based on connections to the O2 network during 2–3 June.
Buckingham Palace was the most popular destination, with visitors peaking at 195,000 on Thursday 2 June at 1 p.m., coinciding with a balcony appearance by the Queen and the flypast. Visitors to Windsor Castle peaked at 11,100 on 2 June, up 96 percent compared to the same time a week earlier.
Sandringham Castle saw visitors peak at 5,400, up 155 percent week-on-week, with Blenheim Palace visitors peaking at 6,800, up 142 percent from a week earlier. After Buckingham Palace, the highest number of visitors was registered at Newquay beach, which peaked at 13,800 visitors, up 224 percent week-on-week. Brighton beach and Blackpool Pleasure Beach registered peak visitors of 10,000 and 7,000 respectively, up 86 and 284 percent from a week earlier.
We find it noteworthy that the major UK operator O2 publishes its anonymized crowd movement data. In this particular instance, the results are hardly surprising—crowd sizes doubled or tripled from their usual levels because of the mass public festivities marking Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. But what is potentially interesting are the reasons why crowd data is collected, and why they are published.
Crowd movement information—stripped of personal identity that could compromise users’ privacy—is of use to government officials planning transportation and traffic initiatives and safety interventions, as well as to demographers doing long-range studies of populations and their behavior patterns. It is also of interest to commercial entities such as retailers, the hospitality industry, and private transportation companies. The data collected by MNOs via millions of cellular phones can be sold to these public and private entities and therefore constitutes a potential revenue stream.
Publishing highlights of the data, as was done by O2 just now, is of value for two reasons. One, it advertises to potential future data customers that the data exists and is useful. Two, it reassures the public that the data is indeed anonymized and that its application is benign and not threatening to privacy and security.
Such reassurances are especially welcome now, amid frequent media reports of mass user data being misused and sometimes not anonymized. For example, this week, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released the results of its 2020 investigation into the Canadian coffee-and-donut shop chain Tim Hortons for improperly obtaining and using data from customers who downloaded its app. According to the report, the Tim Hortons app, once downloaded, constantly tracked users, even when the app was not open, contrary to what the company promised. The movements tracked were not anonymized and were used to determine how often individuals patronized Tim Hortons and even how often they visited competitors’ restaurants.
While no mobile operator is implicated in this corporate invasion of privacy, we cannot imagine that when the public is made of aware of misuse of data via smartphone apps, that MNOs are immune from suspicion, given that all this data travels over their networks. Guilt by association is still harmful, so any effort by mobile operators to show the public that data collected is anonymized and responsibly used will be welcome.