Posted by: Chris | 26/08/2009

All the Fuss about Data Privacy

No one ever said innovation was going to be easy. As if coming up with an idea and bringing it to market isn’t hard enough, you also need to deal with the public’s reaction.  Case in point, Google recently made its Street View technology available for several cities in Switzerland.  If you aren’t familiar with Street View, it basically allows a 360 degree detailed view of streets, including homes and businesses.  You can see the IBM Research – Zurich lab here in Street View for example.

In my opinion, it’s fantastic.  If you need to check out a hotel before booking a room or if you want to look at an apartment or house before contacting the agent, presto.  It’s  better than tapping your heels three times (as in The Wizard of Oz).  But the challenge lies in the photos, because as they are taken, they also capture people and data, like license plates and this raises privacy concerns.  And with all of the press about the United States requesting private banking data this is just adding fuel to the fire in our small country. Google has responded saying that their algorithms blur photos of people and license plates. They already work quite well, they even blur the expressionless faces of mannequins in store windows :-). Achieving 100% accuracy – as apparently is expected – will be hard, if not impossible.  Asking for 100% anonymity creates a real dilemma: on one hand the value of the service is apparent, on the other hand I can understand that individuals may perceive this as an intrusion into their privacy. Personally, I have no problem with it – after all what they photograph is public space – for as long as they react to users reporting non-blurred faces and license plates to quickly make them anonymous again.

Here at IBM Research we have done a fair amount of research into privacy on the Internet. One such project  is called Identity Mixer.  It allows users to share personal information but ONLY what is needed for a specific transaction. You can read several good examples here of Identity Mixer in practice.

But getting back to my main point, should we stifle innovation to avoid rocking the boat?  I would certainly hope not. To me it is clear that we always should spend in parallel a similar amount of attention to consider and deal with the drawbacks of a new technology as we spend on developing it in the first place.


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