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September 2nd, 2014
Is there any progress on location privacy protection?

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There has long been a call for some safeguards for location privacy, not only to put some checks on the surveillant state, but also to curb some of the bold uses that marketers are making with our data. There are many examples of corporate and government abuses of our location privacy, and they only seem to be mounting.

Companies are increasingly compiling, and then exploiting, our location data for their own financial gain. Similarly, the government holds not only surveilling technology, but data mining and monitoring tools that track our every move of both our public and cyber lives. There are many recent examples in the news that point toward a need for change in order to preserve our freedoms, and to safeguard our geographic connections.

Sales of Privacy

The Internet has made the locations we visit, and our interests, so much more searchable than in the past. There are companies actively compiling this information along with items that we purchase, movies that we watch, and the content that we read. With these detailed profiles, marketers are given the opportunity to be very selective about who they advertise to, and they bid in real-time auctions to get in front of us.

For some, these tailored ads are what they’re really after, feeding them more and more consumables that are tailored to their outlook. For others, this kind of marketing feels far too intrusive. The European Union has a solution for those that don’t want to be pushed such information in their “Right to be Forgotten” guidelines. This check on the power to aggregate our information is not without it’s issues however. It could have a detrimental impact to the free flow of information on the Internet, and guidelines for what sort of personal details should be available in the public interest tend to be arbitrary.

Cell Invasion

This recent news in The Washington Post about surveillance systems for sale that compile cellular records and maps our travels over time provides reason to pause. It hasn’t been a secret that our mobile phone providers are using our travels to augment their location data gathering efforts, but the idea that anyone can buy tracking systems to capture our information is crossing the line.

There should certainly be safeguards against this type of data scraping device, and also some more stringent wording of cell phone contracts that limits how this information can be used. At present, we all allow for the broad collection of data by our carriers, even though we pay a pretty penny for their services. These companies should not be allowed to both take our money and profit from our privacy.

Drones and Drivers

Another area that’s in need of regulation is the use of unmanned aircraft systems for surveillance purposes. While it’s a positive move that police officers are moving toward wearing cameras to capture their daily interactions, it’s another matter to give unchecked surveilling powers to these agencies so that they can view us from above. The personal cameras protects individual officers against the inflaming of their actions by showing their actions in the context of interactions, while surveilling us from above adds a whole new dimension to the eye of the law.

Aerial surveillance has long been part of the policing effort to catch speeders, and we’ve all seen the aerial video chase coverage of crimes in progress. With lower cost platforms with automation, we can expect far more uses of such automated aerial surveillance powers. One could assume that we’ll have photo radar from above, just as we have it on the ground now. While most drones have a short flight time, there are high-altitude solar-powered platforms or dirigibles that can stay aloft a long time. Might we see such a hovering drone owned by the local authorities that’s always aloft, aggregating our movements and incarcerating those that continually disregard traffic and other laws. While such a device might add to collective safety, and cut down on insurance costs, there are liberties at stake here.

Is this move toward an automated and surveilled society an inevitability as the price of all the convenience? In the case of the surveillance to crack down on our traffic laws, perhaps this move is needed. The increased fines where no law breaking goes unpunished could certainly help pay for infrastructure renewal, and could even contribute to a quicker adoption of self-driving (and governed) cars, where the need for efficiency gains are important.

It’s not hard to self-justify many of these sacrifices, and to dismiss the growing body of privacy infractions or potentially invasive technology combinations. It’s an easy move to skip through a cell phone contract, not bothering with the small print in the belief that someone is looking out for you. The truth is that not many safeguards are in place, and it’s high time that parameters and penalties are defined.

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