Searching for common ground in the ITS privacy debate

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ITS Privacy

The ITS privacy debate involves an interlaced web of participants with multiple interests.

Should your vehicle be able to gather, store, or transmit information about where it’s been—or where it’s going? On the surface, it seems like a simple question. However, it inevitably gives rise to many others: Who will see the data? How will it be used? Can it be given or sold to a third party? Under what circumstances? Clearly, there are no straightforward solutions or answers in the debate surrounding privacy issues in intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

“The difficulty and complexity of these issues has resulted in an increasingly disconnected public discussion about privacy and ITS,” says Frank Douma, a researcher in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “In one camp are privacy advocates, and in the other camp are technologists and the ITS industry, who generally view privacy issues as secondary when compared with the tremendous benefits of these technologies. The disconnect often results in the two sides talking past each other, with too little energy spent finding potential common ground.”

According to Douma, one cause of this disconnect is a lack of clarity on both sides about the needs, goals, and interests of those involved. To address this divide, a multidisciplinary team of U of M researchers has published a report that sheds new light on the ITS privacy debate by mapping and assessing the interests of all participants. The team was led by Douma and research assistant Tom Gary, and the project was sponsored by the ITS Institute.

Researchers began their analysis by pinpointing exactly who should be concerned about privacy as ITS technologies are developed and implemented and what their goals are with respect to privacy data. A number of diverse participant groups were identified, including ITS developers, transportation users, the government, data collectors, data users, and secondary users such as marketers and litigants.

“We found few black-and-white divides among participants in the privacy debate,” says Douma. “For example, transportation users are not simply pro-privacy, and data collectors are not inherently anti-privacy. Individuals are willing to share their locational data in exchange for real benefits in a variety of circumstances, such as GPS guidance or electronic tolling. However, there are also limits to this willingness.”

Because of this nuanced landscape, researchers concluded that while there is no all-encompassing solution to the ITS privacy debate, there are a number of potential avenues and tools for finding common ground. Their recommendations include setting limits on the time data can be retained, prohibiting unrelated secondary use of data, designing ITS systems with privacy in mind, avoiding the collection of personally identifiable locational information when possible, and implementing privacy policies such as the use of clear privacy notices.

“It’s also important to remember that the positions of participants in this debate are not entrenched,” says Douma. “As technology changes, privacy expectations will also likely evolve as well, such that what may seem important today is less so, and something we are not considering today could be critically important in the future. Consequently, it's very important that this conversation continue in the years to come."