The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices.
Some experts caution that efforts like the one launching here to collect data from people and their surroundings pose concerns of a Big Brother intrusion into personal privacy.
In particular, sensors collecting cellphone data make privacy proponents nervous. But computer scientist Charlie Catlett said the planners have taken precautions to design their sensors to observe mobile devices and count contact with the signal rather than record the digital address of each device.
Many cities around the globe have tried in recent years to collect enormous piles of “big data” in order to better understand their people and surroundings, but scientists say Chicago’s project to create a permanent data collection infrastructure is unusual.
Sounds innocent enough, until you keep reading.
Data-hungry researchers are unabashedly enthusiastic about the project, but some experts said that the system’s flexibility and planned partnerships with industry beg to be closely monitored. Questions include whether the sensors are gathering too much personal information about people who may be passing by without giving a second thought to the amount of data that their movements — and the signals from their smartphones — may be giving off.
But such an effort could still lead to gathering more sensitive information than is intended, said Fred Cate, an expert on privacy matters related to technology who teaches at Indiana University’s law school.
“Almost any data that starts with an individual is going to be identifiable,” Cate said. When tracking activity from mobile phones, “you actually collect the traffic. You may not care about the fact that it’s personally identifiable. It’s still going to be personally identifiable.”
King, the Harvard sociologist and data expert, agreed that the Chicago scientists will inevitably scoop up personally identifiable data.
“If they do a good job they’ll collect identifiable data. You can (gather) identifiable data with remarkably little information,” King said. “You have to be careful. Good things can produce bad things.”
Researchers hope these sensors will eventually expand into neighborhoods.