By Rich Grady, AppGeo President

Is there a coordinated response that society should take when confronted by the threat of terror to protect privacy while assuring security?  In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, many people are asking this question. The value of video coverage and digital photography was clearly high in identifying the culprits, and has spawned considerable discussion about how pervasive ongoing surveillance of our public places should be. I believe it is our responsibility as geospatial professionals to be aware of and help shape these wide-reaching security and privacy issues and possible solutions.

There is a popular viewpoint that increased security can diminish privacy. For example, the cover story of May 13, 2013 issue of Time Magazine was titled, “Homeland Security:  Do We Need to Sacrifice Privacy to Be Safer?” The article published the results of a recent Time/CNN/ORC poll, in which only 40% of the survey respondents said they were willing to give up some civil liberties if that were necessary to curb terrorism, as compared to 57% who were willing to sacrifice in 1995. In this same poll, 61% of the respondents were more worried that the government would enact excessive antiterrorism policies than fail to enact strong policies. As Americans, we like our civil liberties and freedom, and don’t want to give up these rights to “Big Brother”, which was George Orwell’s term for the all-seeing authority figure in his novel, 1984, written in 1949. The book was about a society in which everyone was under complete surveillance – a scary thought after the global battle against Totalitarianism in World War II. And today, almost 30 years after the year for which his book was named, both public and private surveillance is commonplace.

Personally, I am not particularly worried about our government being in the surveillance business, as long as its purpose is to improve our safety and security, which has been a long-standing tradition. And I do not entirely believe that privacy and security are inversely related. Many things that individuals do in their own home to increase security can serve to increase privacy too, like fences, locks, and doors. In public places, I assume that I might be under surveillance as a member of the public, but that it is for a specific purpose – to improve my safety. I would be less tolerant if I felt harassed and infringed upon, or if my freedom of movement was unduly restricted.

In our free and open society, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent all bad people from doing bad things, but we expect our government to provide public safety and homeland security as a public good. It is our government, and when we don’t like its behavior, we can change it through the democratic process and the courts if need be. And at times, it is self-correcting, as with the recent scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) over singling out conservative groups. Over-zealousness or politically biased purpose can be a problem, creating deviation from intended purpose in a way that is not beneficial, and instead, potentially harmful.

Companies in the geospatial business continue to perfect ways to acquire greater volumes of detailed location data at lower costs, helping to support location-based, context-sensitive advertising – whether they know what the data will be used for or not. Imagine walking down School Street in Boston, and the Starbucks across the street from your office knows you are coming because it can pick-up the wireless signal from your Google Glass eyewear. The store shoots you an ad for your favorite grande chai tea latte – all you have to do is blink three times – it will be waiting for you and debited automatically to your Starbucks card, assuming you pass the facial recognition test. This scenario is not so far-fetched, and not so far off from today!

Virtual reality and Web 2.0 pioneer Jaron Lanier has said that corporate giants, i.e. Google and Facebook, are non-government versions of “Big Brother”, behaving as “spy agencies” that monetize our search history and personal identities by selling this information to advertisers, turning individuals into advertising “fodder.” In an interview in Smithsonian Magazine in January 2013, Lanier spoke of the risk of “social catastrophe” as people are engulfed by the “hive mind” of the Web world – a world he helped to envision and create, but now sees as causing a dangerous erosion of human dignity and empathetic reasoning, and an “accretion of tribalism.”  Do people not value their individual privacy and freedom of thought because no one else seems to, as members of the Internet tribe?

People continue to join Facebook and Twitter, check into Foursquare, and carry smartphones everywhere they go. Commercial companies are mining huge amounts of personal data about individuals, profiling consumers under the banner of free enterprise and commerce – and too many people don’t think twice about it, or are too busy to care. For awhile, the phrase “too much sharing” was popular, but now, who has a choice and a voice?  We all do – don’t we?

In 2004, Adena Schutzberg asked me to write an article for Earth Observation Magazine (EOM), on privacy and geospatial data. She was thinking way ahead, and has become a well-known journalist in the geospatial industry. EOM is no longer published, but I recently discovered that my article was online. The title was “Homeland Security, Privacy, and Data Acquisition.” In it, I talked about the importance of purpose, the danger of zealots, and the need to acquire geospatial intelligence for not only homeland security, but for good government and healthy commerce. When I reread it in preparation for this piece, there isn’t anything I’d say differently, but I do want to say more.

In early May, I attended a seminar/workshop on “Creating the Policy and Legal Framework for a Location-Enabled Society,” held at the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University, co-sponsored by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). I found it to be very informative and thought provoking, with a good variety of perspectives and experiences about the subject matter, from private- and public-sector representatives, as well as academicians. An interesting question was posed by one of the speakers, Jeremy Crampton of the University of Kentucky. He asked, “If we give up privacy for security, what are we getting that’s worth the trade-off, and is it sustainable?”  In general, the event raised many questions, but also provided some eye-opening perspectives.

For example, Kirk Goldsberry, a visiting scholar at the Center for Geographic Analysis, conducted a “Map Yourself” exercise with his students, to assess their behavior and attitudes with regard to the “bread crumb trails” that they each leave based on the data collected by their smartphones, and what could potentially be done with it. Before the exercise, most of the students really didn’t know what data was being collected about their whereabouts, or at least hadn’t given it much thought. By studying it, and thinking about it, some of them became astounded and disturbed, as they realized they were being tracked “day-by-day, hour-by-hour, place-by-place, with potential extreme consequences” if the data was used inappropriately – one student referred to it as feeling as if she was being stalked.

The students didn’t so much mind the obvious back-and-forth trail they left between their dorms, dining commons, and classrooms. Instead, it was less tolerable to be tracked to their hairdressers, doctors, nightclubs, off-campus friends’ apartments, and assorted other places they might have visited. Some students expressed outrage at being so pervasively tracked, and didn’t seem to think it was justifiable on the basis of “What if there is an emergency and they need to find me?” argument. Others thought being tracked everywhere was worth it to have E-911 services available for the public good. But, one student decided to get rid of her smartphone!

Latanya Sweeney, director of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), and Professor of Government and Technology in Residence, raised the question of “What’s the benefit vs. the harm?” of sharing private data. She argued that there need to be “new rules for who controls your data,” and protection for individual citizens. She gave examples where even aggregated or generalized data could be used for “re-identification” of individual citizens, like the publicized example where Dr. Sweeney discovered William Weld’s health records from when he was Governor of Massachusetts by “re-identifying” him from “anonymized” data on state employees, narrowing the possible matches down to his home address in Cambridge!

Most workshop participants believed that geospatial analysis and location-based intelligence technologies are moving faster than regulation and policy-makers’ ability to understand how they work, or what they can do. Nicolas Oresovic, a physician from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) who studies the effect of the built environment on human health, made comparisons to biomedical technologies, and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process for academic research. There is no equivalent IRB for geospatial and location-based technologies, and he suggested that maybe there should be, based on the Fifth Century Hippocratic Principle of “primum non nocere” (first, do no harm) – sounds Google-like (i.e. do no evil)!

I think my favorite sound bite of the event came from Chris Tucker, the Principal of Yale House Ventures, the founding chief strategic officer of In-Q-Tel, and the founder of the MapStory Foundation. In talking about the proliferation of spatial data after a quick history on the long tradition of mapping to support the administration of government around the world, Chris commented on the future of spatial data as “an odyssey toward radical openness.”

My concluding point on this potpourri of observations on the subject of privacy and security is to say this: for those involved in the collection, usage, and dissemination of location-based data, these issues should be pondered and resolved on a continual basis. The subject of privacy and security has been debated in America for a long time, and we as geospatial professionals can help frame and participate in the discussion!