You may remember an earlier post on Blyncsy, the company that has installed cell phone sensors around Park City in order to help monitor traffic. I raised privacy concerns over the capture of cell phone signals and had the chance to chat with Mark Pittman, the CEO of Blyncsy today about those concerns. I was able to ask questions regarding privacy, as well as those submitted by the broader community.
My conclusion after the call is that Mr Pittman seems to be a very nice and genuine individual. Blyncsy seems to have considered privacy and have tried to incorporate that what they are doing. That said, the fundamental nature of what they are doing will likely be viewed as “creepy” (as one reader put it) by some. People who are against a third party collecting any information on them will likely be very disturbed by this. And the majority of people probably just won’t care.
So, what are some examples of how this information could be used to invade privacy? Here are a couple of examples:
- Perhaps you are in a nasty divorce and your spouse has cheated on you. Your lawyer convinces a judge to create a request for Blyncsy to produce documents detailing your spouse’s location through town during the last 2 years. Blyncsy would likely be forced to comply and tell the court where you drove around town, how long you stopped, etc. You could extrapolate that example in a number of different ways.
- Perhaps you want to dig up dirt on someone. You find the person’s phone MAC address. You then pay someone with access to the Blyncsy database or find a way in to it. Though this is highly illegal, since the information exists it becomes a target. Think of the extent paparazzi go to to follow and take pictures of celebrities. This isn’t that different.
These examples rely on getting someone’s MAC address from their phone. The MAC address is a unique identifier for a phone’s WIFI and Bluetooth operations (two different addresses usually). They are unique in the world and perfectly identify your phone. Mr Pittman spoke of the MAC address as if it was purely anonymous. The problem is that it isn’t completely anonymous. I mentioned in my previous article that I would explain how to get the MAC address of someone like the Mayor. Effectively you would use readily available software programs to see what MAC addresses were being used during a City Council Meeting. You’d then happen to show up at a coffee shop where the Mayor is and see what MAC addresses were being used. Cross reference the two lists and the anonymity is gone.
Is that a little unlikely? Yes but so is having two candidates each spending $50,000 on an election for the Mayor of Park City. You just never know. And that’s the problem with protecting privacy. Once you give someone the ability to track you via sensors, then your privacy is gone. The only question is how is someone going to use your information.
You may not care about this at all, and I can see that. You may care a lot, and that makes total sense to me too. The problem is that your data is being scooped up and stored by a third party. Your only protection is your trust in Blyncsy and what they say. That’s true, even if you fill out their opt out form. In some ways Park City has enabled a process that requires absolute faith.
That’s a bit strange to find in Park City.
Here are the questions and the gist of Mr Pittman’s responses:
Park Rag: What does Blyncsy’s system do?
Mr Pittman: Blyncsy enables real-time traffic studies. They use WI-FI and Bluetooth signals from cell phones, watches, tablet, cars, etc. to be able to tell what is passing by the sensor. Blyncsy turns people’s cell phones into actionable information by city personnel.
Park Rag: How many sensors will Blyncsy have around Park City.
Mr Pittman: In the near future there will be 23.
Park Rag: How is privacy protected by Blyncsy?
Park Rag: How does that opt out page work?
Mr Pittman: People enter their name, device information, and agree to be excluded.
Park Rag: What happens then?
Mr Pittman: Blyncsy will delete the MAC address data from its database each time it is received.
Park Rag: Is there anything else than can be done?
Mr Pittman: A person could turn off bluetooth and WI-FI on their cell phone and tablets. However, people should also realize the potential long term benefits from this traffic data. If they opt out or turn off wireless, then Blyncsy can’t help Park City incorporate their data into analyses. Also, in the future things like traffic lights may automatically be controlled by Blyncsy, and if a person isn’t included, they may not influence things like the traffic signals to their benefit.
Park Rag (from citizen question): Does law enforcement have access to this information?
Mr Pittman: The contract with Park City says they cannot request individuals’ data. That means that law enforcement could not either. Mr Pitman did clarify that if a federal judge ordered them to reveal the information they would. In that case, Blyncsy would do everything in their power to notify the person who was the subject of the request.
Park Rag (from citizen question): How does Blyncsy account for people on buses, cyclists, and bikers?
Mr Pittman: Blyncsy can use speed and other statistics to filter out people moving slowly. Right now, bus data is not removed or filtered out, but it should be possible to do in the future. In the future they may want to work with UTA to provide data about riders.
Park Rag (from citizen question): How long is data stored?
Mr Pittman: It is stored indefinitely. Park City may want to incorporate previous years information into analyses.
Park Rag (from citizen question): Is data ever sold?
Mr Pittman: Not right now. Mr Pittman says that in the future they may try to help businesses better understand their customers.