Balancing the promise of big data, TrendsWatch 2014 looked at the privacy issues raised by our accelerating collection and sharing of data on every aspect of our lives. I’ve shared my utopian vision of how big data and data analytics could help museums measure the good we do for individuals and for society. Events in the past few months have demonstrated the height of cultural and legal barriers of making this vision real. Privacy, as Dana Boyd points out, is a set of cultural conventions, not an inherently technological issue, though technology amplifies the concern. As a society, we have a lot of issues to work through about who is responsible for guarding individual privacy and where we collectively draw the line.
Some of the most interesting privacy stories in the past year have been about the evolving role of government regulation. In May the European Union court of justice handed down a decision that reaffirms that in Europe, at least, that the right to privacy trumps the right to freedom of expression and the free flow of information. The decision came in lawsuit brought to the court by a Spaniard demanding that a Spanish newspaper and Google Spain remove articles and links to article referring to government repossession of his home. The court ruled that the newspaper could retain the information on its website, but Google had to remove links to the pages from its index. (Basically, the paper gets a pass due to its status as a media organization, but Google, which has intentionally positioned itself as a “data controller” rather than a media outlet, is not.) Here is a good condensed explanation of the ruling. Essentially it reaffirmed the historic “droit d’oubli” or “right to be forgotten,” as it applies to internet search engines. The information still exists, of course (both digitally and in hard copy), it is just harder to find. The US legal approach to privacy is very different, based on the protections on free speech established by the First Amendment. Here is a nice article in Forbes on how, and why the US and UK approach to privacy issues has diverged.
But while the US may be the “wild west” when it comes to the free flow of information, even Americans freak out when it comes to the privacy of our kids. Last April, InBloom a $1M educational technology start up supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shut down due to parental concerns over student data privacy. Parents and privacy advocates felt the company was collecting inappropriate data and did not provide credible evidence of their ability to protect access to sensitive information. The NY State legislature responded to these concerns by barring education officials from sharing student data with aggregation services such as InBloom. Now California is tackling the issue as well, and may become the first state to comprehensively restrict how K-12 student data is used (or misused) by tech companies. As this article illustrates, for people (particularly parents) to accept the application of big data analytics to information about what and how their kids are learning, companies have to:
Prove that data mining actually benefits individual students, helping to improve success at school
Reconcile their own profit motive with the public service aims of public education
Provide a cogent rationale for what data they are collecting, how it will be used and by whom
Demonstrate that they can protect the data they are entrusted with
These are lessons museums should pay close attention to, as we begin our own forays into the semi-magical realm of big data and data analytics. While museums are unlikely to be faced with legal obligations to “forget” individuals’ histories, we will certainly be subject to cultural and regulatory boundaries to what data we collect about our audience and how we use the information. The good news is, we are starting from a position of enormous trust—but we have to be careful not to blow that advantage.
Also of interest:
A story dramatizing what data can reveal about our life—also an exercise in absolute surrender of personal privacy. (FYI–I’ve pre-ordered my copy of the 2014 Feltron report)
An Infographics Genius Plots Out Another Insanely Detailed Year of His Life
For nearly a decade, designer Nicholas Felton has tracked his interests, locations, and the myriad beginnings and ends that make up a life in a series of sumptuously designed “annual reports.” The upcoming edition, looking back at 2013, uses 94,824 data points: 44,041 texts, 31,769 emails, 12,464 interpersonal conversations, 4,511 Facebook status updates, 1,719 articles of snail mail, and assorted notes to tell the tale of a year that started with his departure from Facebook and ended with the release of his app, called Reporter. Felton is aware of the symmetry between his self-tracking and the government’s snooping habits and saw his data as a test bed to see what kinds of narratives this content and associated meta-data could yield.
Video on 2013 report
Here is another project designed to draw attention to the need to control personal data
To regain some ownership and control of her data (and other assets related to her existence) Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American living in London, decided to become Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc (JLM), registered like all savvy corporations in Delaware. And what started out as an art project—her brief as part of a master’s degree at London’s Royal College of Art was to “design a protest”—is now transforming her into a humanoid/corporate hybrid. JLM is an intriguing attempt to establish the value of an individual in a data-driven economy. As Ms Morone’s business plan describes it, JLM “derives value from three sources, and legally protects and bestows rights upon the total output of Jennifer Lyn Morone.” Those sources are the accumulation, categorisation and evaluation of data generated as a result of Ms Morone’s life; her experience and capabilities, offered as biological, physical and mental services; and the sale of her future potential in the form of shares.
Your cat may never give up your secrets. But your cat photos might. Using cat pictures — that essential building block of the Internet — and a supercomputer, a Florida State University professor has built a site that shows the locations of the cats (at least at some point in time, given their nature) and, presumably, of their owners. Owen Mundy, an assistant professor of art who studies the relationship between data and the public, created “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” as a way of demonstrating “the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all.”
Chinese scientists are developing a mini-camera to scan crowds for highly stressed individuals, offering law-enforcement officers a potential tool to spot would-be suicide bombers. But the technology has raised concerns over its implications for individual privacy and potential abuse by government agencies. Stress has a range of effects on the body. It can register as changes in heart rate, facial expression and body temperature, which scientists can already monitor from a distance. Officers looking through the device at a crowd would see a mental “stress bar” above each person’s head, and the suspects highlighted with a red face.
Chicago’s New High-Tech Lamp Posts Will Track Everything, Always
Almost 50 years after Simon and Garfunkel sang “Hello lamp post, whatcha knowin,” the streetlights of Chicago will answer them. The city will start collecting data through Web-connected sensors installed on lamp poles this summer. In addition to foot traffic, the project will measure air quality, sound volume, heat, light intensity, and precipitation as a means to better understand the urban environment and ultimately make Chicago a safer, more pleasant place to live. Despite their innocuous appearance, the sensors have raised the ire of critics claiming personal privacy violations because sensors will pick up Bluetooth signals from smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Charlie Catlett, one of the project’s organizers and the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, contends that precautions have been taken to protect the cellphone data used to count pedestrians; researchers will drop the modem addresses that signals come from. The anonymous data will be made available through the city’s public portal for anyone to view and use.
And, from the bleeding edge of tech
GeekWire Radio: Brain-computer interfaces and the future of personal privacy
What happens when we start hooking our brains up to devices? Brain-computer interfaces refer to the use of sensors to detect neuro-signals from the brain. These signals can be used to help people control games, computer programs, prosthetics or devices. Howard Chizeck, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, and UW graduate student Tamara Bonaci are investigating ways to preserve personal privacy as this new world emerges.