It’s Not YOUR Data, Didn’t You know?

Identity. In the digital age, this is widely characterised by our data. Internet browsing data, consumer data, digitised public service records and biometrics.

A key thread linking many a Smart City talk today is the optimisation of public services through data technology. This encompasses everything from delivering healthcare to underserved populations to more efficient tax collection to crowdsourcing community solutions through digital engagement platforms. All this is just one facet that adds to our daily accumulation of Big Data, defined by IBM as the information that is “generated by everything around us at all times”.

IBM’s most recent brainchild, wryly named Watson, is a “cognitive” data processing system that incorporates aspects of Artificial Intelligence, allowing it to sift through largely unstructured data. The machine uses natural language processing in order to gauge grammar and context and is supposedly capable of providing bespoke data insights for any given customer on the basis of their questions. This model can theoretically be applied to all manner of public and private services including health, employment, disaster relief and public security.

On one hand, these records provide the opportunity to analyse human and environmental activity to a degree never before imagined. On the other, this relentless identifiable torrent of individualised information has close to eradicated any hope of anonymity for those in any way connected to the grid.

[Read Ushahidi Founder Talks About Big Data, Privacy, Citizen Engagement, and Facebook]

As so aptly put by Pakistani Minister (of Information, Technology and Telecommunication), Anusha Rahman Ahmad Khan at the Smart City Congress in Barcelona this month, “the greater our dependence on digital infrastructure, the greater our vulnerability” (as is the case with India’s Aadhaar mass digital identification programme) and the likelihood that this information can be used against us.

In a panel on “Privacy in the Smart City”, Gemma Galdon Clavell of Éticas made the unsettling observation that of all the exhibitor booths, only one dealt with data privacy and none with security. She also highlighted how data analytics giants are pressuring citizens to hand over their valuable details through gatekeeping tactics. LinkNYC, a congress exhibitor, is one such example of this.

It's Not YOUR Data, Didn't You know?
Gemma Galdon Clavell and Carmela Troncoso at the Smart City Congress

Their “Smart” telephone booths in New York City propose free WiFi at 20x the average household speed, in a tidy little unit with tablet browsing and phone capabilities: ultimate ubiquitous connectivity in a box. In theory, this idea sounds great, right? Not exactly. These units are funded on hyper-local targeted advertising pulled from the data of its users, which they automatically hand over when opting in to use the free WiFi.

[Read Seeking Security, Both Physical and Cyber]

For those with limited access to such swift connections, it’s a trade-off between privacy and entry to the digital Garden of Eden. “Free” WiFi is a contentious term, when the costs add up in other ways.

According to a survey recently conducted by UK-based Digital Catapult, 76 percent of British people feel they have “no control over how data is shared or who it is shared with.” This is a figure that deserves some serious attention in the Smart Cities sphere, as we move in leaps and bounds towards total liberation of our personal data, and hand over the keys (knowingly or otherwise) to the analytical nerve centres of corporations plugging these products.

Carmela Troncoso, another delegate raising her voice on privacy concerns, also commented on the exhibitors. She noted there were only two types: those selling sensors and those offering data analysis solutions. It’s a worrying snapshot of the sector’s current disregard of individual data liberties in exchange for further digitisation.

Troncoso pointed out that, thanks to Big Data, it is now next to impossible to reside anonymously in a modern city. Why? Because data anonymization itself is almost impossible without using advanced cryptography. Our every transaction leaves a digital marker that can be mined by anyone with the right tools or enough determination.

It is the duty of world leaders to safeguard their citizens’ privacy, just as corporations are answerable to leaks and hacks. Furthermore, tech providers should be more transparent about the security concerns their systems pose to honest customers at the hands of unscrupulous leaders. It’s this public-private sector consensus that will shield global individuals from vulnerabilities, countering corruption and re-harnessing the power of the Internet and all its potential for positive development and social change.

Until then, just remember, it’s your data, and you have the right for it to remain that way.

It’s Not YOUR Data, Didn’t You know?