City of Big Data promotes data benefits, ignores privacy concerns

Chicago: City of Big Data is an exhibition being presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation from now until the end of the year. The title City of Big Data is a play on the moniker bestowed on Chicago by Carl Sandburg, “City of Big Shoulders.” The exhibition focuses on how the City of Chicago uses massive collections of digital information commonly known as “big data” to identify trends, anticipate needs, and increase transparency. Unfortunately, the exhibition includes very little detail about the privacy and security risks associated with the collection and storage of big data.

Not surprising for an exhibition housed at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the centerpiece of Chicago: City of Big Data is architectural, a room sized 3D model of the city that can light up to represent different data sets.  Surrounding the model are wordy informational displays and screens for video, web, and interactive content. You can see a video about the exhibition here.

City of Big Data Chicago Model

Although Chicago: City of Big Data does a good job showing interesting collections of data (such as graph of 311 request types) and demonstrating how the city uses big data (such as knowing where to place rat poison), there is very little consideration for the privacy and security concerns that come with collecting and maintaining the large data sets that fuel the city’s data mining projects.

The only mentions of privacy I spotted at the City of Big Data exhibition were in the display labeled “You: Your Data Trail.”

City of Big Data Your Data Trail

There is single section of the display called “Join the Data Debate.” It points out that the debate over the pros and cons of big data exists but lacks any explanation of why privacy matters.

City of Big Data - Privacy

In the interactive portion of the “You: Your Data Trail” section of the City of Big Data exhibition, there are three examples of how online data is used, which allude to privacy concerns. The first example is how Netflix recommends content. The second example is about online advertising.

City of Big Data - NSAThe third example is titled “The NSA and You,” which seemed like it had potential to bring up some significant privacy issues. Unfortunately, that section said the NSA only collects metadata (even though they collect much more) and “can only search these records when there is reasonable suspicion that an individual is engaged in terrorist activity” (even though there are thousands of documented cases of NSA misusing data).

Although the NSA is significantly relevant to discussions of privacy, it it a bit out of scope for an exhibition highlighting how the city of Chicago uses big data. So the lack of detail on this particular aspect of the privacy debate is not surprising.

City of Big Data - Chicago Architecture FoundationThe City of Big Data exhibition did a good job demonstrating the practical and often beneficial uses of big data in aggregate. What I would have loved to have seen included would have been an explanation of how the Chicago is safeguarding these massive data sets to protect the individuals they represent.

Anonymization, ensuring that data cannot point back to specific individuals, is a huge challenge in big data collection and data mining. Even when obvious identifiers such as name and social security number are removed from a data set, it is still possible to reidentify that data.

Researcher Latanya Sweeney has shown that 87% of Americans can be uniquely identified with only their zip code, birth date, and gender. Other researchers have been reidentify individuals in other data sets based on identifying pieces of data. Examples of of anonymization failures can be found here.

That the City of Big Data does not mention the anonymization challenge and what the city is doing to protect individual data seems like a gross oversight and missed opportunity. Without that consideration big data is just Big Brother.

Still, the City of Big Data exhibition is interesting, if one-sided. Depending on how much you want to delve into the displays it takes 15 minutes to an hour to explore.

Chicago: City of Big Data
Free to the public
Open 9 am to 6:30 pm daily
Chicago Architecture Foundation
224 S. Michigan Avenue

To learn more about privacy and big data read these related posts

You can also hire me to speak to your company or group about privacy issues.

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