MIT Ethics Inquiry? Senseable City Lab and BAN GPS Tracking Update

As we near the end of 2016, and I review the engagement of the published blogs this year, it appears I need to update readers on the apparent stonewalling of our requests for information and review of MIT Senseable City Labs "collaboration" with Basel Action Network's GPS tracking of used electronics.

I slowed down on the reporting in part because I had to engage with actual attorneys... MIT's, one of the "collateral damage" processors at Hong Kong's Eco Park, and my own.  Obviously Hong Kong Environmental Department attorneys must be involved in responding to BAN's accusations (in China Daily) that their legal opinion - that printer scrap is not hazardous waste and not illegal to import - was against international law (according to USA-based Also a few of the companies mentioned in the report as being in the "chain of export" cautioned me about the "Streisand Effect".  If reporters were by and large (other than PBS and Time) ignoring BAN's study, why risk elevating it?

Well enough time has gone by for an update.

  1. MIT did not confirm or deny that a copy of my letter was given to its Ethics Review Committee.  They sent it instead to Basel Action Network, the organization we thought entangled MIT in the ethical research questions to begin with (and who I did not address in the letter for that reason).
  2. Evidence has come to light that BAN had the ability to control the outcome in real time.  This risk was not addressed by Carlo Ratti's team.  BAN admits they knew where the devices were at intermediaries DURING the study.
  3. My company shipped printer scrap to another shredder, on several occasions, which pays BAN e-Steward royalties.  We shipped printer scrap to that company immediately before the load (also to the Chicago area) the month before the tracking device came to Good Point, and a month after the device was shipped to the company that exported it.
  4. DURING THE MONTH IN BETWEEN the company which pays BAN royalties stopped accepting our material!  We had actual cancellations of deliveries of printer scrap while the tracking device was at our property!

At the very least, this seems a strong reason not to publish the names of unwitting and unwilling test subjects involved in the chain.  While we don't know about this particular case, we do know some in the chain were more "witting" than others.  I revealed last summer that at least some E-Steward companies knew the trackers were in the field, and at least some were involved in selecting which devices to track.

This does not prove that BAN colluded with or warned their sponsor company that we had a device on our property, or that the information resulted in the delivery being cancelled until the device was off our property.  That information is "continuously unknown".

It does show the need for MIT's existing rules on testing of unwitting subjects, and rules on conflict of interest.  And there can be no bigger example of a conflict of interest than between Basel Action Network and Fair Trade Recycling.

And it raises a lot of questions about BAN's subsequent report, which named me personally as "in the export chain" but not writing about the information I provided them about the percentage of that material we delivered to (their) shredding company vs. a potential exporter.

It's not as if Jim Puckett has any conflict of interest with Robin Ingenthron, right?

Likewise, BAN knew that a device was at [the vicinity of] Hong Kong's EcoPark (the LCD we showed you was apparently repaired and sent to a part of "NewTerritories" characterized by high rise office buildings and modern elevated subways.  Long term readers may recall that those facilities were "obscured" by BAN at the MoniTour site.   BAN knew whether a device was in a "farm" or was in a facility, and withheld that information while MIT had our letter demanding that information.  BAN held it back while preparing reports on who they would "out" as "export chain" participants.

Active Nature

The "active nature" of BAN's GPS data raises new questions for MIT Senseable City Lab, the attorneys at our upstream and downstream and "intended downstream" clients.  If information about our tracked device was given to the company that pays royalties to BAN, while it was en route tom or in process at, our company?  What if that company as a result cancelled our attempt to ship scrap to them, and BAN already was preparing to write a page specifically about our company and clients, this would not just be a matter for MIT's Ethics Committee?

This would be a matter for the Attorney General, and possibly, the FBI.

If I were the parent of the MIT student who taped a GPS tracker into an apparently repairable device, range the doorbell of an unlisted office in Somerville, and the device was then actively monitored and its information used to affect the commerce at the site, I'd be very upset.

And I would have expected that it would not take MIT an entire year to respond to the questions about Senseable City Lab's tracking project.

Look, I'm not an academic.  I don't blog full time.  I would have thought that I just had to raise questions about such a broadly reported research project by MIT, and that scientific method and peer review would take over.

But then, I thought Joe "Hurricane" Benson would have been sprung from prison, or his case reviewed, simply because I blogged about it publicly.

What I'm learning is that Carlo Ratti, MIT Ethics, Hong Kong EPD, BAN Board of Directors, etc., have something in common.  It's not about ethical questions, like whether unwitting unwilling test subjects should be publicly named, whether students should get course credit for committing tort law violations, whether a declared activist "watchdog" should have access to real-time tracking information, etc.

CYA  That's "See Yah" next year.  (or "cover your ass")

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