Someday soon, the Red Cross says, it may use drones to deliver humanitarian aid. But aerial delivery vehicles can also be used to surreptitiously collect data, raising serious trust issues.
Similarly, data collected by mobile operators can be used to pinpoint where people are moving en masse during war or disease outbreaks in order to better target relief efforts; or it can be abused by totalitarian regimes to track down dissidents.
An example of how Big Data can be used for the greater good is mobile operator Orange’s “Data for Development Challenge,” a 2013 initiative which uses research into how anonymized and aggregated mobile network data, sourced through Orange’s local subsidiary in Côte D’Ivoire, could be applied to gain new insights into socio-economic development issues.
The 2013 challenge marked the first time a large database of anonymized mobile network data was opened to the international scientific community for use in research for social impact. Over 80 research teams from academic institutions submitted projects that demonstrated how analysis of mobile phone data can be used to address everything from poverty mapping and disease to spread modeling and transportation optimization.
Since then Orange and Sonatel, in partnership with UN Global Pulse, the Gates Foundation and other partners, have launched another challenge, focused on Senegal.
While Orange received plaudits for the use of anonymized data for research purposes the same tools that allow tagging and identification of people are being used by governments elsewhere to subvert personal freedoms, leading to harassment, jail time or worse.
For example, WITNESS, an organization that encourages people to use video to document abuses, tells the story of people who attend a rally against the Syria government. The next day images of protests downloaded from YouTube were being cross-checked with the faces of people walking through check-points. When IDs were made, arrests followed.
The Risks And Unintended Consequences Of New Technologies
Similarly, when it comes to wearable technology that tracks data about movements and health “we have to figure out how do I opt in with the doctor but opt out of sharing that with the government,” says Abi Weaver, Director, Global Technology Project, at the American Red Cross.
Privacy and trust issues must be resolved if new tools are going to be effectively leveraged to address big problems, such as disease outbreak, disaster response, food security and financial inclusion, says William Hoffman, head of the World Economic Forum’s Data-Driven Development Initiative.
In a 2014 study, The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices [PDF], conducted for the World Economic Forum, respondents were asked to what extent they trust various entities to safeguard their personal data. Only about half of respondents said they trust government or health and medical services. Technology companies fared even worse: only 37% said they would trust social networking companies, 40% said they would trust search engine companies and 44% said they would trust mobile operators.
Will People Trust Drones?
To move forward, shared principles and data ethics for areas such as the treatment of metadata need to be established and technical innovations put in place, so that permissions can flow with the data, making it clear who accesses what and when, says Hoffman.
Issues to be addressed during the workshop include how to strengthen accountability for the impact data analytics can have on individuals and communities; how to deliver meaningful transparency of data flows; and how to give individuals greater control over how their personal data is used.
“There is no question that we find better solutions when technologists, business leaders, government officials, researchers and humanitarians align interests and resources,” says Weaver, a workshop panelist. “Our partnerships with technologists have not only transformed the way the Red Cross responds to emergencies and serves disaster survivors but they have also improved the way we manage change and bring ideas to scale.”
But, she says, before the Red Cross can start using technologies like drones, people have to trust that the data that is collected will not be abused.