Groups call for ethical guidelines on tracking technology

As smartphone apps Keeping track of our every move, a group of technologists in the US and UK this week proposed guidelines for the ethical use of location data. Leaders of the American Geographical Society and UK mapping agency Ordnance Survey want companies to commit to 10 principles, including minimizing data collection and actively seeking user consent .

Chris Tucker, president of the American Geographical Society, a private research and advocacy group, says the Locus Charter aims to capture the potential benefits and risks of an invisible real-time tracking world: from your weather app to the your car’s GPS system. , or internationally, state-supported contact tracing apps that keep tabs on people around the world.

“We all had to start struggling with Covid and the ethical implications of contact tracing, which relates only to location applications and geospatial data, ”says Tucker. “We realized that there was no international set of guidelines or principles for implementing tracking technology. It’s a big void.

Tucker says the outbreak has highlighted the dual nature of location data. Governments could use location data to prevent outbreaks by informing people of potential exposures. But it risked creating a state-run registry of everyone’s location, where they went and with whom.

The Locus Charter is not a set of laws or rules, but 10 guidelines intended to guide an organization’s thinking on the ethical use of location data. Points include protecting vulnerable people and understanding how location data sets can be combined with other data to identify individuals.

The guidelines address concerns about certain uses of location data. Vice reported on Muslim prayer apps, including Muslim Pro, designed to help Muslims stick to prayer times. But many users weren’t aware that apps kept this data, tied it to their credentials, and sent it to data brokers contracting with the U.S. government.

Going forward, Tucker says concerned researchers or engineers could invoke the Locus Charter guidelines to try to prevent such arrangements. Rather than just saying “This is bad,” they could point out that the apps collected more data than needed, failed to notice that their users were largely a vulnerable population, and failed to notify or ask for information. consent for other uses.

“People need something to lean on when they go up against man,” Tucker says.

When the lockdowns started, Google, The New York Times, and other organizations mapped out the way people moved in the first few weeks of the pandemic. The data was insightful, highlighting how occupation and income impacted whether people were staying there. But many were shocked at how easily these organizations could access our location data, tapping into the many databases to keep tabs on where we are going.

Around the same time, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs abandoned plans for a so-called Smart City on the Toronto wharf. The residents had raised many privacy concerns about sensor integration projects for 24/7 data collection, including commuter data. Nadine Alameh, CEO of the Open Geospatial Consortium, which develops technical standards for geospatial data, says she is particularly concerned with smart cities, describing them as “Google Earth on steroids”. In most smart city proposals, the location data of residents is collected simply based on where they live, with the tradeoff being that the data informs the creation of a more sustainable city. She hopes the Locus charter will get organizations thinking about the benefits and the massive scale mischief of entire cities.

For now, the guidelines of the Locus charter are voluntary. But some funders see them as a stepping stone to regulations, like California’s Consumer Privacy Act or the EU’s. General Data Protection Regulation.

“At some point, we have to regulate these huge platforms that can grab all of this data,” says Alameh. “And the Locus Charter, as I see it, starts the discussion on how you can have regulations on it.”

Tucker says the drafters of the charter are discussing approval of the principles with other groups. Eventually, the conversation will shift to regulation, but for now, Tucker says, even that exploratory move matters.

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