What About Privacy in Data?

Sarah Elwood posits that rapid change took hold of geospatial technologies over the last five years, with the “emergence of a wide array of new technologies that enable an ever-expanding range of individuals and social groups to create and disseminate maps and spatial data” (256). Elwood does an admirable job of fielding some of the pros and cons that stem from this revolution in technology. In particular, she covers changing power relationships as new groups are empowered by creating data, the possible limitations of existing spatial data models and analytical operations, and how problems with the heterogeneity of the data might make it difficult to support across users or platforms (interoperability).

However, her most important alarm bell, I believe, comes when she writes “that the growing ubiquity of geo-enabled devices and the ‘crowd sourcing’ of spatial information supported by Google Maps fuels exponential growth in digital data, and growing availability of data about everyday phenomena that have never been available digitally, nor from so many peoples and places” (257). What happens when governments use this data to spy on citizens or when individuals use this data for the wrong purposes? The United States government clearly has no compunction about monitoring its own citizens (if you follow recent politics there). Elwood, herself, pays short shrift to what this might mean for the privacy of users and, even, just the public caught up in “everyday phenomena.” She notes that some scholars have raised the question of whether or not the rise of these technologies constitute new forms of “surveillance, exclusion and erosion of privacy” (257) but quickly moves on to the exciting promise of these technologies.

In particular, Elwood appears enamored of the potential of these technologies to reveal new social and political truths (261). Yet, as we noted in our IPhone conversation in class, these technologies might be used inappropriately to track us without our knowledge. Individuals in a democratic society have an undeniable right to privacy, but how can they use these new technologies and software and still be sure that their privacy is respected and their data remains anonymous (if needed)? Should some type of system or regulations be put in place to ensure this right? Something like this has been tried in Europe, but what are the lessons? I’m not sure.


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