Home > Public Domain Data > The Invasion of the Data Snatchers: Privacy Implications for the GIS Community

The Invasion of the Data Snatchers: Privacy Implications for the GIS Community

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Keller lays out an interesting real scenario where a local editor legally obtains location information and proposes to publish it in the newspaper.  One of the points Bill raises is that just because we can increasingly map location information, it may be controversial to do so.  For example, when a newspaper mapped the names and addresses for 33,000 gun owners in two counties, thousands of protests came from gun owners and non-gun owners alike.  We may protest this type of mapping but we are also acquiescing to sweeping erosion of our privacy in many areas of life, prompting Bill to say, “when it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites.”

What are the implications for the GIS community?  In our book, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data and on the Spatial Reserves Blog, we dive into issues of privacy.  I first became aware of the dichotomy between personal information wariness and wanting to map that information while working for the US Census Bureau.  People may not relish divulging their own information for the census but appreciate  government grants to their communities stemming from census figures.  How did you feel back in the 1990s when grocery chains began offering plastic cards as a way to offer discounts?  You knew they would track your purchases, and they did!  But then consider the detailed data that you can obtain and map from consumer expenditure surveys based on that data.

Grocery Store

Grocery Store

I think that what makes people nervous is not so much the publishing or mapping of data in aggregated form, but the fact that individual records are stored online and potentially accessible by many.  And nearly on a daily basis, we read about those records being hacked or somehow compromised.  What is the solution?  Certainly the continued improvement of cyber security.  However, beyond the technology, it is my hope that through our work in education, that we can cultivate a generation that is ethical about data and will seek to protect and secure that data.

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  1. ckopplin
    February 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    I like the way you present this topic, it is a real conundrum that we face. One of the issues that I have to keep in mind with my agency is although all of our data is public data, which data make sense to have available in the most open sense by posting it on our web page and which data make sense to have that public entity make a formal request to access that data by coming into our office. We have to work with differing degrees of sensitivity of the data. An other tough question is when to make the data available. We all need to view our access to locational data with not just our passion for the data, but we need to use a degree of wisdom and integrity when we go to display the data.

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