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We need to be careful while using GIS

As urbanisation becomes increasingly necessary to achieve global economic growth use of modern technologies to attain the ultimate goal is becoming rampant. Geographic information system (GIS) is one such technique which has been increasingly used in improving quality of life and building sustainable communities.

One of the reasons why GIS is important in urban planning is due to its the ability to better understand current needs for a city, and then design to fulfil those needs. Today, a growing number of cities rely on Geographical Information Systems to unlock powerful insights that would otherwise be hidden in data. GIS Services has got the proficiency to model the real world of the city in totality. It can incorporate a huge amount of variables and has the capacity to geocode variables. It is deployed at every stage of planning and development of a Smart City.

However, one of the greatest threats in handling the GIS data is relating to privacy, security and surveillance issues relating to the capacity to directly or inadvertently observe private property, capture sensitive personal information and potentially put persons in trouble. The nature of surveillance and privacy risks differs according to the nature of the data captured and the mechanism for capturing this data. Another danger is that of capturing data through geospatial tagging via social media. Since social media has become as important as internet itself, this danger may take unparalleled dimensions in future unless proper checks are put in place and protocol is followed.

Further, other geospatial data generated and captured are from mobile devices (that is not necessarily derived from geotagged data) such as call volumes, call frequency and location i.e. call detail records. This is personal information that is typically collected and analysed in aggregate. There can be no informed consent for sharing of this information by virtue of the fact that it is captured largely in aggregate. However, it does raise issues with respect to control of data and respecting those whose data is used. Providing publicly available information regarding its use would be a means to respect those whose data is contained in the database.

In many instances the individual or the group involved may not be aware of the invasion of privacy or, if they are aware of this violation of their privacy, are unlikely to be able to mitigate against it or be easily able to take remedial action in real time or retrospectively.

It is worth highlighting that some of the risks related to surveillance and privacy may be minimized if data sets are de-identified, aggregated to a sufficient level and/or, if possible, geomasked which is seldom the case in India.

Comprehensive privacy, data protection and storage standards are non-existent in our country which may pose problems in development and humanitarian contexts where data is frequently shared between agencies, donors and NGOs. Further, data may be directly or indirectly shared with (or accessible by) the private sector and/or the state, neither of which may be bound by human rights and/or humanitarian standards.

Therefore, wherever possible, when developing a project involving geospatial technologies the government should ensure that privacy concerns are identified and mitigated against in relation to the software used, the transmission channels, the storage built/used and the platforms for dissemination. When using third-party data, consideration should be given to the privacy policies of the organization and their implications. Wherever possible only de-identified geospatial data should be accepted from third parties in place. The government should also consider taking steps against the possibility of discrimination against disadvantaged groups that are collectively associated with particular geographical areas.

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