Privacy and information security

The ethics of big data

With the recent increase of smart devices privacy has increasingly become a question of the technological domain. The high number of smart devices in our society has turned the vast majority of its citizens into data subjects. Apart from all the practical implications these technologies have, their data-centeredness have included people from all walks of life into worrying about and debating privacy related issues.

However prominent and relevant this discussion has become, the discourse is still in many places characterized by arguments such as “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, that “you should not worry about your privacy, because it is just meta-data that is being collected” or any other notorious example where data processing companies and governments are downplaying the consequences. How does behavior change when we know we are being watched and how does this affect our freedom?

It is clear that a value as relevant as privacy, deserves to be critically investigated, and that is exactly one of the aims of the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology. In this Spotlight some of our researchers show how ethical issues become apparent in different technologies.

Privacy settings ethics technology


Speech recognition technologies

According to David Douglas privacy issues become apparent in devices operated by speech recognition. An increasing number of devices now include speech recognition capabilities: smartphones can answer spoken questions, televisions can respond to vocal commands, and even some toys can listen and reply to children. Many of these systems rely on transmitting the speech detected back to a central server, where the speech recognition is actually performed and the appropriate response is transmitted back to the device. As a result, such devices require a network connection to operate. This connectivity is a privacy concern as an outside source is potentially listening in on our private interactions. We must now depend on the creators of these devices to only record and transmit the information necessary to perform their function, and that these devices cannot be easily subverted by third parties to become hidden eavesdroppers into our private lives.

Self-tracking devices


For her PhD research project ‘The Transparent Self’, Marjolein Lanzing examines self-tracking devices and apps: lifestyle and health technologies that collect data about our bodies, behavior and activities in order to take control over and ‘improve’ one’s health or fitness. A feature of these devices is that they stimulate you to share lots of (very) personal data (see BellaBeat Leaf): with your doctor but also with research institutions, commercial companies, employers, health insurance agencies, friends and/or strangers. Yet, many users are not aware of how their information is disseminated by these new technologies. One can imagine that this leads to all sorts of privacy concerns.

Smart meters


Francien Dechesne points to another very relevant technology data-driven technology: the smart meter. This meter for energy consumption in households provides the data necessary for balancing the grid with the inclusion of solar and wind energy. Furthermore, these data are useful in helping people adopt more sustainable energy consumption habits, support them in becoming energy producers (prosumers) and control household appliances in accordance with electricity supply. However, this information in its full granularity can reveil in high detail what goes on in people’s homes: through pattern matching, even the tv program being watched may be derived from the electricity use. Energy usage data therefore has prominent interest from actors in non-energy contexts such as law enforcement and marketing. This is only one case that shows how privacy-as-contextual-integrity is challenged in the age of Big Data.


Patient privacy


Lily Frank is currently writing a paper called “Should our physician’s know all?” on the electronic health record and privacy and confidentiality. “I have a somewhat nontraditional privacy concern that also arises with the paper medical record, but is greatly expanded with the EHR”. Lily is interested in whether or not patients should be able to restrict access to some portions of their EHR to certain physicians or other practitioners.  For example, should a psychiatric diagnosis, gynecological episode, or other treatment by a specialist be available to the General Practitioner, and should the information be available across the various specialists? The puzzling thing about this issue is that one of the great anticipated benefits of the EHR is that with increased access to information, physicians will be able to provide better quality and faster care. “I am interested in what, if anything will change in the doctor-patient relationship with this greater access to patient health information and whether or not patients have a justifiable claim to withholding health information from certain providers”.

Privacy matters!


How can we preserve the values we find important in the digital age and how can we face the future of data-intensive technologies in a responsible way? This is one of the main questions the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology tries to answer.

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