Privacy Advisor

What’s the Geolocation Equivalent of Shouting “Fire!” In a Crowded Theater?

June 1, 2013


By Emily Leach, CIPP/US

The Center for Geographic Analysis held its annual conference at Harvard’s Tsai Auditorium last week, focusing on the challenges and thoughts surrounding policy-making for a location-enabled society.

The benefits of location technology are hard to deny—identifying influenza outbreaks, getting necessary transportation to people in remote locations, providing emergency services to people that call 911 from cell phones, heck, even just figuring out how to get home without being stuck in rush-hour traffic—but the collection, analysis and use of this data bring risks, too.

In order to offer these services to users, companies and governments have access to their location, and combined with other information tied to their mobile devices, the privacy risks can get steep pretty quickly.

CGA posters

For example: Imagine, what Hitler would have done with this kind of data.

Ebele Okobi, global head of Yahoo’s Business and Human Rights Program, asks, “What happens when a government is broken,” when what a government considers a public good contravenes international human rights norms? And as the repositories for this data, what do we want the role of the company to be? “What do we do when we're in the middle of a public good and an international human rights issue?”

Harvard Data Privacy Lab Director Latanya Sweeney opined that in the past we’ve looked at privacy concerns from the perspective of re-identification, but that needs to change. We need to either align the risks and benefits or limit the risks. But how?

Industry and government consultant Jeffrey Harris noted, “As we have learned not to shout fire in a crowded theater, we are learning how to use data processing for public good.”

The government will not figure out this technology on its own, said Harris. The job of industry and the people who understand geolocation is to inform the debate—and we cannot halt the innovation or stop reaping the benefits from this technology while waiting for the government to catch up, others added.

Confounding the issue, according to Prof. Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard, is that we have a situation where the government is both the regulator and the user of this data. “We could do so much good with the data we have now,” he said. He cautioned against letting the problems paralyze the benefits.

Calestous Juma

Government usually lags behind industry; new technology is developed; people adopt it; there’s public debate and, finally, government regulation. And while this is nothing new, Greg Scott, inter-regional advisor on Global Geospatial Information Management in the United Nations Statistics Division, says the gap between lead and follow is increasingly wider.

So what should be the role of the government in a location-enabled society? Enabler? Leveler of the playing field? Creator of standards?

Nigel Jacob, co-founder of New Urban Mechanics, says these questions of policy should be part of the experiment itself, and many agreed. “We need to revamp the structure of policy-making,” Jacob said, adding this would be a good role for local governments.

Polarized politics and large government make it difficult for the U.S. to take this approach at a federal level. There needs to be a “co-evolution of policy, technology and the consumer,” said Alex “Sandy” Pentland of MIT.

But that’s not the end of the story. Technology marches on. “It's not possible to conceive of a policy that could keep up with exponential growth of technology and data,” said closing speaker Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project.

The question remains, what happens when the technology is flying free while the policy is still waiting for its wings to dry? Who’s getting hurt?