The Privacy Implications of Mobile Sensor Networks

Back in February I gave a speech at Four Years From Now (FYFN) in Barcelona on the subject of privacy and mobile sensor networks. The full text of this speech is now available here on the OpenSignal website. Mobile sensor networks are an incredibly powerful tool to gather data about the world (as James Robinson and I have previously discussed) but their development raises important questions about privacy and the ways we interact in a world where internet access is both always-on and necessary for full social engagement.

OpenSignal is a sensor network company, and it is our responsibility to balance the opportunity of this new technology with privacy concerns, as we feel very strongly about our users’ right to privacy. Many of the concerns I raise in the speech are hypothetical, but on a more practical level there are three things we already do to help our users to participate in our sensor networks (OpenSignal, WeatherSignal, WifiMapper) while remaining informed about what is going on with our data.

1) Transparency

The traditional model for a data company is to offer a service (often free) to users and then take personal data and profit off it as a transaction cost of the user receiving utility from the service. We believe in both making explicit the data we collect and also feeding it directly into the service that we provide to users (signal data into coverage maps, pressure data available on weathersignal.com etc). This allows users to directly benefit from the information they share. rather than simply giving it up as a cost, we want data sharing to be a benefit to our users. We believe we have done this very effectively.

2) Accountability

Users may be on board with our projects and be happy with sharing their data with us, but what happens to that data once it has been directly shared with us? While we do not collect any personally identifiable information (unless users explicitly log-in with facebook or send us an e-mail, neither of which are necessary actions for app usage), we still believe this question has relevance, especially for any company that collects location-tagged data (as we do – as we need to know where you can get good/bad signal or where your pressure reading is from – in order to provide our services). While the initial context in which data is given up may be fine to you (such as using our app), our sharing that data with third parties opens up avenues that are potentially difficult to navigate. For now we provide non-user identified data to mobile operators, consultancies and academic researchers. We believe our openness at point-of-use helps us here, as our business model is very open and obvious and the mobile network data we provide to operators helps them to improve their service to users – something which is the key driver of the OpenSignal mission.

3) Trust

We strive to be a company that has the full trust of our users, through our openness and clarity about our purpose. One of the things about collecting this kind of data is that you never know exactly what kind of use it might be put to (for instance, collecting battery temperature data as we do in OpenSignal led to our creating an algorithm to map ambient temperature from aggregated battery temperature readings – which directly led to the creation of WeatherSignal). We want to be a company that can be trusted to make the right decision with our users’ data, and we believe that all of our decisions up to this point have been made with user privacy at the forefront of our minds. I see no reason for that to change in either the near or far future.

Read the full report on privacy and the future of mobile sensor networks

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