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Privacy & Data

Privacy in the Age of Big Data

For some years now, when speaking about privacy, I have often told my audience: “Everyone in this room, whether they know it or not, is carrying a tracking device.” I was referring to their cellphones. Every few seconds, whenever it is turned on, a cellphone sends out a signal registering its location — and its user’s location — with the nearest towers.

I used the example to illustrate the way in which consumer-driven changes in technology and the way we use it are dramatically eroding privacy, creating more and more data about our daily activities, held by services providers, shared for advertising and other purposes, and available to the government, often under very weak controls. Expanding on this theme, Jeff Jonas has pulled together in his latest blog post some of the implications of the growing prevalence of what he calls “space-time-travel” data. Jonas highlights trends CDT has been talking about for some time – see our report on digital search and seizure and our recent Policy Post on the location-enabled web — but he sure says it in a much more interesting way than we have been.

Jonas has said before that the data intensive future is inevitable, irreversible, and irresistible. But that doesn’t mean that privacy is over. As Jonas suggests, the future of privacy hinges on a combination of factors, including technology design, business practices, consumer awareness, and the legal rules for both commercial and governmental access to and use of data. CDT is working on all four fronts to create a future in which privacy is protected but consumers can take full advantage of the digital revolution, entrepreneurs are free to innovate, and the government can get the information it needs subject to checks and balances. One example: Jonas highlights the value of enlightening consumers about just how much data is being collected about their movements, where it is going and how it is being used.

CDT is building an app for the Android phone that would show users which service providers are gaining access to their location data. Jonas’ proposal is more ambitious, so read it for yourself. For CDT’s part, we will use our modest location feature to push all those who handle location data to be more transparent to the user. CDT’s Alissa Cooper is on the program committee for an upcoming conference about how the massive stores of data being generated about our movements and actions can and should be used. Ari Schwartz will be among the speakers. This is a really hard problem to solve, given the proliferation of data sensors and the steady improvements in storage, search and analysis, compounded by the fact that there are so many irresistibly useful things that can be done with data. We need to start now planning the next generation of privacy protections to cope with this future. Jonas’ wake-up call deserves widespread attention.