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Benefits of personal data will depend on public confidence in how and why it is used, the Geospatial Commission said

Does the public support use of location data?

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Karl Tomusk

Better experiences, convenience and public safety are three areas where people see the benefits of location data, but ethical concerns about its use are evident in public perception, according to the UK’s Geospatial Commission.

The findings come from a series of workshops in which members of the public expressed their opinions of the benefits and concerns over the use of location data.

Co-funded by the Geospatial Commission and UK Research and Innovation, the project will influence the guidance on location data ethics that the Geospatial Commission intends to public next year.

Participants believe that location data has the potential to have positive economic, social and environmental impacts. In real estate it could change the way buildings and places are designed to better suit their users.

However, location data also causes concerns over the ethics and security of gathering and using personal data, with participants particularly concerned about a lack of clarity in what data is collected in a given situation and how it is used.

The Geospatial Commission said: “So that we can continue to benefit from widespread use of location data, it is important that data is used in a way that mitigates concerns and retains public confidence.”

In general, the project’s ‘independent dialogue’ with 85 members of the public from across the UK found that the perceived benefits of location data focused on the wider public good. Meanwhile, the biggest risks were related to individual concerns.

Perceived benefits and concerns

Benefits

  • Better experiences and convenience when used by retailers or tech companies
  • Better public safety and health when used by public sector bodies, such as the NHS, police services or local authorities – generally participants trusted public sector use of data more than private sector use
  • Improving transport, making travel easier and informing infrastructure planning
  • Participants were comfortable with anonymous aggregate location data (more so than specific personal location data) used for public good, including by for-profit services such as Google Maps

Concerns

  • Privacy: lack of clarity around what (and how) data is collected and how it is ultimately used
  • Data breaches: some felt these are inevitable
  • Risks to vulnerable people, such as victims of abuse or forced migrants: could location data be used by individuals or organisations they feared?
  • Use of data by central government: opinions of this depended on participants’ existing levels of trust in government
  • Businesses prioritising profit over interests of data subjects or society – especially if data is sold to third parties
  • Targeted advertisement seen as “creepy” by some
  • Accuracy of location data about objects – such as gas pipes – and what impact that could have on businesses or house prices

Edwina Dunn, independent commission of the Geospatial Commission and interim chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, said: “This independent report on public attitudes about location data is one of the first of its kind and I look forward to exploring how it can help inform the Geospatial Commission’s work on location data ethics.

“The findings will also play an important role in supporting the government’s vital work to enable the trustworthy use of data and AI.”

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