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Data Collection Transparency through Street Signs

Mandee Thomas
Apr 22, 2019 10:21:42 AM

We recently discussed the implications of GDPR on workplace surveillance and best practices for business, and for consumers. The bottom line is people want transparency. They want to know when they are being watched and what is to be done with their information. Now, Sidewalk Labs, sister company to Google, is looking to take this issue to the streets with a new, comprehensive system of urban signage.

The Reason Behind the Project

While homeowners integrate more and more smart technology into their homes every day, the cities around us are getting smarter too. CCTV surveillance, traffic cameras, wifi access points, and automated card readers for public transit make it impossible to avoid numerous data-recording devices all within a single urban block.

While these advancements in technology aim to make our cities safer and more efficient, there is a looming question about what is done with all the data collected about us. That’s why Sidewalk Labs set out to create a sweeping set of designs that would help the public know not only when their information is being collected, but why.

How It Works

Sidewalk Labs' sign designs fit within a series of hexagons, each depicting an important piece of information:

  1. The purpose of the technology
  2. The logo of the technology company
  3. A QR code that can be used to find out more information

data_collection_transparency_through_street_signs(1)Image Credit: Sidewalk Labs

The QR code was important to sidewalk labs because in most cases where technology is used to collect data, even if a sign is displayed to alert the public, there is rarely a way to follow up. This way, people can be linked to information about the technology and data being collected, instead of being left in the dark.

If the data being collected is classified as “identifying,” then a privacy-related colored hexagon would also be incorporated in the mix. The colors used would mark how the information is to be used: yellow for identifiable, blue for de-identified before first use, and more.

The Unsolved Problem

While this new signage system is undoubtedly a step forward in transparency and disclosure to the public, it still lacks one thing: a way to opt out. As someone in a public space, the only way to feasibly “opt out” and not have your data collected would be to leave the area completely. That's not an appealing solution for anyone with a basic desire for privacy.

Despite this problem, Sidewalk Labs associate director for the public realm, Jaceline Lu believes that these signs can have a meaningful impact.

“While this project does not address all the issues of consent around data collection, we believe it is a meaningful step forward,” she says. “The project aims to address the issue of meaningful notice and transparency, and aims to give agency to people and create awareness around the kinds of technology in the public realm.”

Sidewalk Labs has started testing their system in multiple cities, and look forward to feedback as they continue to refine their system. Their designs can be accessed through Github, and they hope that like-minded companies and individuals will make use of them as they seek to better inform the public about the data that’s collected about them.

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