PRIVACY LABEL — Part I: The Privacy Illusion

Every time you commute to work, shop for groceries, browse the internet, or even stroll through the park, chances are you’ve revealed information like how probable you are to commit a crime, who you spend time with, your nervous walking behavior, and more. Curious to how and whom you’ve revealed this?

Jeremy Raider
Sensor Lab


Part I of a blog series about privacy, and how we can raise awareness through a universal privacy label.

Illustration by CLEVER°FRANKE

As part of CLEVER°FRANKE’s UX Design team, we’re exploring this topic for our research program ‘Demystifying the Smart City’ within our initiative Sensor Lab. This foundation aims to link together different individuals in the community to redefine the possibilities of what smart technology is.

In our mission to discover new solutions, actively share knowledge, and push boundaries of what’s possible, we’re rethinking public spaces to better inform people about data collection and privacy.

As for how and to whom we reveal our personal information: government and private entities employ smart technologies hidden within our cities and websites. Often without our consent, let alone awareness, these technologies make our cities and the internet literal living laboratories.

This first post of four explores why privacy today is problematic.

The Current State of Privacy.

Cookie, privacy policy, and terms of service pop-ups seem to endlessly clutter and interrupt today’s web browsing experiences. While not new, they’ve seemingly become more aggressive since the GDPR, Europe’s latest data protection reform, went into effect in May 2018. Although the intentions behind these notices are inherently good, their execution doesn’t appear to be.

How often do you find yourself taking the time to read into agreements prior to clicking agree? If you’ve answered never, you’re in the majority. And even if you’ve answered yes, how much of these agreements do you comprehend?

If you think about life offline, it’s not all that different. We’re tracked in more ways than we tend to realize, through a network of sensors which analyze and predict information like age, gender, race, behavior, relationships, school drop-out probability, trash disposal, and more.

There are many ways in which this information is used to improve citizen’s quality of life, and foster safer, more sustainable, efficient, and comfortable cities by, for example, improving traffic flow and minimizing crime. But, there are also growing privacy concerns about our lack of awareness and control over what personal information is collected, by whom, and for what intention.

Our limited access to staying aware, informed, and in control of our personal information is in the power of external hands.

Examples of smart sensors in Utrecht, the Netherlands, continuously collecting citizen’s personal information.

Pinpointing the Problem.

Researching the concerns of smart sensors, we’ve identified three main data privacy concerns:

  1. Discrimination (like unfair treatment and exclusion);
  2. Deindividualization (like loss of autonomy);
  3. Confrontation with unwanted information.

Nonetheless, these concerns are solely expressed by privacy advocates and experts; people who possess, act upon, and share advanced knowledge about smart cities and data privacy. If these individuals dictate today’s data privacy conversation, where does everyone else fit into the picture?

Analyzing the situation further, we’ve determined five reasons for this knowledge gap between privacy experts and everyone else:

  1. People don’t know enough to act;
  2. People doubt they can make an impact;
  3. Personal implications of privacy concerns are unapparent and incomprehensible;
    Whereas if they’re more tangible in a country like the Netherlands then it’d be a different story, just like how there is a political party solely dedicated to ridding bikeways of scooters.
  4. The Netherlands is a technically inclined country;
    Giving citizens a feeling of control.
  5. Dutch people are among Europe’s most trusting of their government.
    For most, there would be no reason to think twice about where, and why smart sensors are in their cities.

Reflecting on these points, our general perception of privacy today seems grayer than ever. Just as internet privacy pop-ups don’t adequately communicate their implications, the sensors within our cities put us in the same position. To change this, and expand the conversation beyond privacy experts, we see a need to establish new forms of communication for personal data privacy.

Concerned about your privacy? Read more in our series exploring what privacy is, why it matters and how we rank it in Part II, visually communicating the complex ideas of privacy in Part III, and designing a universal privacy awareness label in Part IV.

The ‘Demystifying the Smart City’ research program is supported by the Creative Industries Fund NL.