The tradeoff between the utility and risk of location data and implications for public good

by   Dan Calacci, et al.

High-resolution individual geolocation data passively collected from mobile phones is increasingly sold in private markets and shared with researchers. This data poses significant security, privacy, and ethical risks: it's been shown that users can be re-identified in such datasets, and its collection rarely involves their full consent or knowledge. This data is valuable to private firms (e.g. targeted marketing) but also presents clear value as a public good. Recent public interest research has demonstrated that high-resolution location data can more accurately measure segregation in cities and provide inexpensive transit modeling. But as data is aggregated to mitigate its re-identifiability risk, its value as a good diminishes. How do we rectify the clear security and safety risks of this data, its high market value, and its potential as a resource for public good? We extend the recently proposed concept of a tradeoff curve that illustrates the relationship between dataset utility and privacy. We then hypothesize how this tradeoff differs between private market use and its potential use for public good. We further provide real-world examples of how high resolution location data, aggregated to varying degrees of privacy protection, can be used in the public sphere and how it is currently used by private firms.


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