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How your cell phone knows if you’ve been laid off

May 27, 2015, 3:25 PM UTC
Businesswoman texting on cell phone at office desk
Businesswoman texting on cell phone at office desk
Photograph by Getty Images

Your cell phone is pretty good at tracking your schedule. Say, you typically call your mom during lunch on Tuesday or you call you child everyday at 3:30 p.m. to make sure they got home from school. Or it’s Thursday happy hour and you’re calling to say you’ll miss dinner again this week.

So, the moment your schedule changes, your cell phone is often the first to reap the evidence. And it looks like that shift in calling patterns is a pretty good indicator if you’ve lost your job, according to new research.

A team of professors from top universities across the country looked at millions of cell-phone records from an unidentified European country from 2006 to 2007. In one city of 15,000 people, about 1,100 workers were laid off from an auto-parts manufacturing plant. The researchers identified those people and followed their call logs to compare them to those of a control group of workers still employed.

Researchers found that those who were laid off made and received 21% fewer calls after a month out of the job compared to the working group. They also didn’t move around as much. Their calls originated from 15% fewer cell-phone towers. Essentially, the workers who lost their jobs where less social and less mobile than their employed counterparts.

This may sound like more creepy big brother than helpful, but the implications could be huge. Using this kind of tracking on a large scale could better reveal the larger trends in the unemployment rate for an area, possibly even weeks before government surveys are released.

The researchers don’t have access to any U.S. data, nor do they have ongoing records from the European nation—there’s major privacy concerns even if the data could be anonymized. So, for now, the research is simply proof of concept.