Ethical Standards and Transparency Can Protect Location Data

Privacy is an indubitable aspect of the ethical debate around location data use because it has the potential of being misused. The Locus Charter seeks to guide the ethical and responsible use of location data.

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By John Kedar
By John Kedar

Location and time are increasingly becoming common attributes of data. When linked to individuals it gives unprecedented insight into the activities, behaviors, and beliefs of people and groups. Much of this is hidden from us — yet our very liberty is at stake. The way data is used is a fundamental question of our time and privacy is one aspect of the growing ethical debate in our increasingly digital world.

We can largely accept data being used for social and individual good, for sustainable development and to help solve human challenges. But it can also be used to track us, to malevolently influence government policies, to persecute minorities, and to reduce COVID-19 vaccine acceptance. It can also simply be misunderstood. For example, early-on in the pandemic the Johns Hopkins dashboard that showed progress of COVID-19 cases around the world led to debates about why some nations did not have COVID-19, when in reality they were simply, or in some cases willingly, not able to widely test or record related deaths. There were many educated politicians in the West who misread this representation of recorded death data, and some even went to the extent of suggesting that certain ethnic groups were immune to the disease.

Traditionally, the geospatial community has been sheltered from the debate — geospatial agencies create data about non-personal infrastructure data and imagery can be ‘blurred’ to anonymize people, to an extent. However, the increasing variety of data sources, many real-time, combined with Artificial Intelligence technologies means that geospatial agencies increasingly hold sensor data that can identify individuals or their assets. Equally pressingly, machine-to-human and machine-to-machine decision making are increasingly dependent upon the quality of location data and algorithms and susceptible to inherent bias.

Wake-up call

For Denise McKenzie, Chair of Association for Geographic Information and co-author, Locus Charter, the 2018 news of Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data was a key wake-up call for the geospatial community. Along with a growing number of people around the world, she recognized that increasing quantities of location data is collected and used in analytics and decision making but no-one was really asking the important questions: “Should we use it? Do the societal benefits outweigh the individual privacy losses?” Just because we can do something does not mean we should, she explained when I interviewed her recently.

Many functional areas, such as medicine and banking, are reconsidering their approach to data ethics and data regulation is increasingly common. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe is one such example. Indeed, GDPR explicitly includes location data where it impacts privacy. But location data ethics is much wider than privacy, explains McKenzie, and there is little guidance for governments and businesses.

Recently, McKenzie co-led the UK Benchmark initiative with Ben Hawes — an Ordnance Survey and Omidyar Network thought leadership program exploring the ethical issues relating to location data. During the program a partnership was formed with the complementary EthicalGeo program being led by the American Geographical Society’s and a series of international workshops were undertaken to get to the heart of the issues surrounding ethical and responsible use of location data. As result of the overwhelming support from the workshops the two teams collaborated to develop a new global charter to guide the ethical and responsible use of location data. This is the Locus Charter.

The Charter is written for individuals and organizations who use location data or have the responsibility for activities that create, collect, analyze, and store location data. It has 10 principles:

  • Realize opportunities.
  • Understand Impacts.
  • Do no harm.
  • Protect the vulnerable.
  • Address bias.
  • Minimize intrusion.
  • Minimize data.
  • Protect privacy.
  • Prevent identification of individuals.
  • Provide accountability

McKenzie explained why ‘geo’ needs its own approach, when in reality geospatial data is part of a wider data ecosystem. “Broader debates are a little nebular”, says McKenzie, “and geospatial technologies are so powerful a means of visualizing information we need to give location particular attention.”

The Locus Charter is an international collaboration of governments, organizations, and individual practitioners seeking to ensure the ethical and responsible use of location data throughout the world. It founding signatories include: the American Geographical Society (AGS), Association for Geographical Information (AGI), Environmental Information Systems Africa (EIS – Africa), the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI – Mexico), Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), PLACE, Radiant Earth Foundation, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS-IBG), and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) with recent signatories including U.K.’s Ordnance Survey, We Robotics, ALBEDO, and DataReady.

Present and future

At present the supporter group is growing the conversation rather than imposing ideas and will take views on the Charter from any individual or organization. Whilst it has no legal status, the Charter is a means of reaching a consensus and understand issues before policies are written and regulations changed. It is timely, as McKenzie points out COVID-19 has highlighted a number of issues and has reduced trust in government and businesses handling of location data.

I agree that the debate is important and note that some laws are already in place in some nations and states, many of which to a greater or lesser extent use Locus principles. I also believe that the Locus Charter will benefit industry by setting clear principles that all stakeholders can work towards. However, for me it is the integration of different forms of data and algorithms, based on hidden assumptions and bias, which could be further addressed. Therefore, transparency could be an important additional principle — transparency in personal location data holdings, in the outcomes to which such data is being used and also in the assumptions and biases inherent in algorithms.