Privacy is in Our Hands

Today I discovered a really interesting blog, Spatial Law, written by Kevin Pomfret. Kevin commented on my last post about open source and Google maps, and pointed out that the legal issues surrounding spatial data are even more murky than those around software.

More importantly, Kevin also talks about privacy issues. As usual, our technology is outpacing our culture, seriously jeopardizing our expectations of privacy. And worse, our fear of terrorism is scaring us into compromising on rights that we should not be compromising. As Benjamin Franklin said:

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.

Many of these privacy issues come to a head in the geospatial world. Its now easy to track people. We are constantly filmed on security cameras, most of us have location enabled cell phones, we conduct commerce electronically (ATMs, credit cards), and some of us even show up in Google Street View! Not only that, but many of us freely publish our locations because of the useful applications it enables – where are my friends, what bar am I at right now, etc. And last, if Congress has its way (and other countries are heading down the same path), we’ll all soon have national identity cards that makes it even easier to track us.

Of course many of these issues are from clear. What is acceptable to you might not be aceptable to me. But its much too easy for those of us building these applications to get caught up in the technology and “geez-whiz” factor and completely ignore the privacy issues at hand.

How many talks were there at FOSS4G about privacy? Not a single one. How about Where 2.0? One. Exactly 15 minutes was spent this year on privacy issues at two of the biggest geospatial conferences.

We must do better. And it starts with each of us. If you’re building a new whiz-bang spatial app, the bare minimum you can do is make sure your users have complete control over what information they share and don’t share with others. And make sure your default settings are “private.”

And then go educate yourself on the issues, if you haven’t already. Many of us already have strong political feelings in the open source versus free software versus proprietary software debate. Yet the importance of that debate doesn’t hold a candle to the debate about basic privacy rights.