Considerations on Geographic Privacy


Maybe when you’re in an “Ethics of Data Science” type of class then every big-data platform looks like a potential problem. A bit of a “everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer” situation, so to speak.

That being said, as part of our studies we read an interesting article from Neustar, in which they detailed how Taxi data from an NYC public dataset could be used in interesting ways to infringe on privacy. Despite the dataset being anonymized, Neustar was able to identify several potential methods. One notable example included potentially identifying individuals who frequented gentlemen’s clubs by finding frequently taken routes between what would presumably be their homes and places of work. Another, potentially scarier, example was how taxi trips timestamps could be correlated with paparazzi photographs of NYC celebrities. Presumably, you could identify their home by just looking up where the taxi trip started.

The experience had me on my guard, and made me wonder if there were other ways we may be giving up valuable information about where we work or live inadvertently.

One potentially alarming aspect that came up to me is the use of Google Maps reviews. Consider the individual below (whose name and review details I have blocked out to protect the innocent).

Just by the sheer mass of reviews concentrated in this area versus other areas, we can tell that this stretch is important to this person. Could I simply retrieve the latitude/longitutde coordinates and average them to find the spot that is most likely where this person lives or works? Maybe… and the fact that I have no ill-will or malice towards this person leaves me with no motivation to do so.

Speaking of social geographic information, it reminds me of a few years ago when I saw the following video:

Story time: After seeing this video sometime back in 2015 I remember thinking that it would be funny if I could get this to work myself.

A woman I had never met or seen before walked into a bar I happened to be in. She seemed very confident when making her food and drink order (didn’t even need to look at a menu) so I presumed that she was something of a regular. After a minute or two browsing posts that came out of that same bar geo-tagged on Instagram I found her profile and amazed her when I bet she was a dog person and that I could correctly guess her pet’s name (it was Benny). I quickly explained the trick to her and we had a laugh about it, but I still remember the trick to this day.

With a lot of conversation today being centered around our privacy in Social Media, I think it’s important to realize that a lot of KDD about you from information you publish for everyone to see. Does that mean you should turn off all your social media and never geo-tag any of your photos, or never leave reviews? Of course not, but you should be aware of your digital footprint and how closely it ties to your physical presence.

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