Big Data and the NSA

Who is Stewarding Location Data? Who Watches the Watchers?
By Natasha Léger | Published June 19, 2013

Big Data analytics is all about analyzing volumes of data in order to gain insights into some aspect of your business or organization and ultimately make more informed decisions. Companies and individuals constantly produce tremendous amounts of data from emails to Internet searches to financial transactions to cable TV viewing habits, and more. Each of these provides a limited view, but taken together, can paint a very vivid picture of a customer, service, process or some other situation. Underlying all of this data is always location information.

The NSA scandal of snooping into emails, videos and texts of individuals communicating through various Internet and phone networks illustrates the abuses that can arise from the collection, analysis, storage, and distribution of personal information. Digital services, by their very nature, enable automated surveillance and analysis to take place at unprecedented levels of scale, ease and lower cost.

Bottom line: What can be done to protect personal privacy, and location data privacy in particular, in a digital services and Big Data world? 

First, is it important to note that every digital service, mobile application or device is a data collection opportunity, especially if the service is free (which isn't really free; you pay for it with your personal information). Second, location information is always present because everything and everyone is somewhere. Location data is derived from multiple sources—address data, customer data, mobile data, semantic data, geo-tagged photos, IP addresses, smart machines and services and more. Third, in order to deliver most digital services—especially voice, video and data—network operators and platform providers require the ability to “know” and “see” certain information such as location and the type of data that moves across the network. 

Individuals, businesses, and government agencies have come to rely on these technologies for convenience, productivity, and emergency response. The ability to place a geo-fence around people, and the ability to see the movements of persons of interest is not necessarily a bad thing. It is very important when it comes to emergency response, threat detection and other vital issues. What is important is for people to understand the sensitivity of location data, or for that matter any information they transmit through digital services.

This awareness begins with understanding how the information is collected, used and shared, and how it connects other, seemingly unrelated information to create a rich portrait of their lives. This is easier said than done, however because many companies and services go to great lengths to mask the answers to these questions. 

An entire data economy has evolved that preys on personal data. There are companies that have built their business models around keeping individuals in the dark about how their data is being collected, used, and shared. There are also companies that have built their business models around protecting privacy.

In order for individuals to play a role in protecting their data, transparency needs to become the normal way of operating. People should be able to know the facts so they can make informed decisions.

Companies should take the lead in being responsible stewards of the data they collect, use and share. The mindset has to shift from “getting away” with as much as possible in order to monetize people’s data to one of using privacy protections as a competitive advantage. Companies should also align themselves with other companies that have a similar view on location data privacy protections.  Peer pressure and public indignation can be powerful tools.

Do you know what’s going on with your location data? 

Do you steward location data responsibly?

Do you know your location data privacy risk score?

Are you transparent in your location data management practices?

Find out with the Location Forum’s Location Data Privacy: Guidelines, Assessment & Recommendations.