Sensors and Journalism

Rights, Ownership, Ethics and Sensors in Journalism

By Kathleen Bartzen Culver When a reporter responded to news of a bomb scare at a Pennsylvania mall in January of 2012, he quickly turned to sensed data to help with sourcing. Using a social geotagging app called Banjo, Andy Stettler of The (Lansdale) Reporter searched for users who had checked in at locations in the mall and began tweeting at them for live updates from their locations. From them, he learned that only parts of the mall were being evacuated and that the threat appeared localized to one area. From Stettler’s process, we can quickly see the value of sensed data in even the most basic breaking-news reporting. But we can also highlight the ethical concerns that arise from data collected, even when gathered with consent. Banjo enabled Settler to contact sources and verify information, but it also would have allowed him to aggregate these sources’ data, tracking them across various stops in the mall, raising clear questions of newsworthiness and privacy. Citizens are subject to unprecedented gathering of their data—by government, by private institutions, and by news media themselves. This is enabled, in large part, by sensors embedded in physical devices—including digital activity monitors like Fitbit and the iPhone in your purse—connected in a vast network loosely called the Internet of Things. As the development of these devices outpaces laws, guidelines, and, at times, even understanding, journalists have an obligation to consider the ethics of collection, use,

storage, and protection of sensed data. They must ask questions about why we collect data, who controls this data, and what means will effectively empower individuals without subverting newsgathering. Data is increasingly easy to collect from a variety of sensors—video from a camera mounted on a drone,1with a soil thermometer, and GPS location from a smartphone check-in.3sensors, as USA Today did when its investigative team used x-ray fluorescence devices to document lead contamination in soil surrounding old smelting factory locations.4use of sensed data from other entities, as the Florida Sun Sentinel did by using state toll pass data to uncover reckless driving by police officers.5the value of data in helping journalists serve the public interest and can illustrate useful parameters for ethical practice in collecting and using sensed data. Ethical Foundations of Privacy Use of sensors for data collection puts novel pressures on legal conceptions of privacy. We often premise privacy on the protection of personal space. We conceive of places where a person might have a reasonable expectation of privacy and punish intrusions into that space. By default, we afford less protection to any activity in public, presuming that people have no such reasonable expectation when they’re in a mall, restaurant, or town square. We also assume fewer protections for personal information that is surrendered willingly. But the ubiquity and sophistication of sensors and data streams have potential to transform these considerations. Because we are moving from simple human observation in public spaces to technological surveillance, practices raise questions with which courts and legislatures have not yet sufficiently wrestled. But news organizations have long used ethics to guide practice in the absence of, in addition to, and indeed in contravention of the law. As media ethicist Clifford Christians says, “Privacy is not a legal right only but a moral good.” Scholars conceive of privacy in a number of key ways, including the fostering of the individual versus the collective, protecting people from unwanted access, and enabling self-determination. Christians sees privacy as a central element to flourishing as individuals, ultimately critical to the common good. “A private domain gives people their own identity and unique selfconsciousness within the human species… Privacy as a moral good is nonnegotiable because controlling our life’s core is essential to our personhood.”7then, must be justified in terms of this common good. This does not mean simply employing the shorthand of “the public’s right to know,” but instead deeply weighing losses of privacy and the effects on the common good. Key to Christians’ argument is the idea that the interests and evaluations that matter belong not to journalists but instead to the public. With privacy, he imagines a media ethics that is fundamentally concerned with the welfare of individuals.

Framing the Ethical Questions To date, media ethics has focused far more on the publication of private information. Sensors and data, however, raise concerns before, during, and after collection, regardless of whether the information is used. We must consider questions of individuals’ control over data about themselves. Daniel Solove’s work8four key concepts that usefully frame concerns about sensing by journalists. Aggregation: Seemingly small bits of information can be fused into a much larger and clearer portrait of a person. For instance, MIT researchers recently reported the ability to uniquely identify 95 percent of individuals from just four spatio-temporal points in mobility datasets stripped of personally identifying information.9fingerprint— make us unique enough that our activities can be traced. Exclusion: Privacy is endangered when people 1) don’t know what information about them is obtained or how it is used, 2) don’t have the chance to opt out of collection, or 3) don’t have the opportunity to correct false or misleading data. Secondary use: Data obtained for a legitimate purpose can later be used for another reason that is not justifiable. For instance, public radio station WNYC asked listeners to send SMS messages reporting the progress of snow removal on their streets,10the participants’ mobile phone numbers. The listeners opted-in to offering reports, but their privacy would have been violated had the station later used the mobile numbers for fundraising messages.

Distortion: Data can paint a faulty picture of a person, often by reducing the whole to particular parts. Compensation and donor databases are often critiqued as distortions, reducing a person’s work life or political philosophies into mere dollar amounts. A Bill of Rights Approach Some argue that private organizations pose a greater threat to individuals’ privacy rights—and thus both their humanness and the common good— than government snooping and intrusion. We have Fourth Amendment rights and legal due process to address government violations. But what of Facebook? Google Glass? The Twitter API? “Privacy is rarely lost in one fell swoop. It is often eroded over time, little bits dissolving almost imperceptibly until we finally begin to notice how much is gone,” Solove writes.11for a consumer bill of rights for the Internet of Things. Connected devices, argues Adafruit Industries’ Limor Fried,12and deter abuse. Among her quoted core principles are:

  • Open is better than closed; this ensures portability between Internet of Things devices.

  • Consumers, not companies, own the data collected by Internet of Things devices.

  • Internet of Things devices that collect public data must share that data.

  • Users have the right to keep their data private.

  • Users can delete or back up data collected by Internet of Things devices.

But these ideas apply more neatly to devices, platforms, and apps than to reporting the news. Surely the speeding cops in south Florida did not have the right to keep their toll pass data—from publicly funded squad cars— private. Journalistic collection, use, storage, and protection of data are more aptly weighed by their justifiability using the following principles. 1. Narrowness: Rather than casting a sensing data dragnet, news organizations must be narrow in their focus. Certainly, sometimes stories will arise from gathered data. But more often, story ideas should dictate specific data to be collected and used. In the Sun Sentinel case, for instance, reporters learned of a high-speed crash involving a police officer and sought the toll pass data to investigate how widespread the problem was. They would be far less justified in a request for toll pass data for all Floridians, even if it was anonymized. 2. Minimization: Relatedly, news organizations should gather sensed data for these specific purposes and not later use collected material for other reasons without specific justification. 3. Transparency: People, not organizations, own the data points about themselves. If not, they have lost the core of their humanness. They must be made aware when data about them is being collected and stored. News organizations adhering to the common good cannot be opaque about their data collection. 4. Accountability: True media accountability—a responsible and trusting relationship with the citizens journalists purport to serve—is often dismissed with shallow references to newsworthiness or acting in the public interest. The public must play a meaningful role in defining acceptable datagathering and responding to its use.

5. Protection: Data collection and storage by journalists cannot be ethically justified unless it is protected from unethical uses. News organizations have an obligation to the common good to prevent intrusion by hackers, governments, and even seemingly benign secondary uses. Individuals have absolutely no control of their data if control has slipped from the fingers of a journalist. This protection is particularly critical when the data involves the exercise of such fundamental freedoms as speech, protest, political association, and religion. These principles sit on a foundation of ethics and a common morality, to be certain. But they also serve a self-interest for news organizations. Challenges to legitimacy and authority abound. Citizens use digital means to contest, and at times usurp, the roles journalism can play in a democratic society. We also see a public more concerned about surveillance by governmental and other organizations. During this time of debate, news organizations that open up their conversations about sensing and ethics are engaging in acts of self-preservation. In articulating and supporting such principles as narrowness and transparency, they have the opportunity to affirm their roles as standard-bearers. Emergent Ethics A common-good conception of privacy asks journalists to adhere to a common morality, rather than a narrow code of professional ethics. This results in clear tensions but can be seen to privilege certain professional traditions, including beneficence and minimizing harm. The protection, transparency, and accountability described above, for instance, appear to run headlong into journalistic notions of independence, avoiding conflicts of interest. Giving people control over their data, we could argue, subverts independence and entangles journalists with those they cover. But an ethics rooted in the common good would argue that harm to privacy can be minimized with this accountability, essentially trumping

the concern about independence. In short, it is more important for an individual to retain her ownership and control over the core of her humanness than for a journalist to be free of any conflict. Data practices in the age of the Internet of Things may require an ethics grounded in the very essence of these devices—interactivity. At its base, interactive means a device, program, or service that responds to user activity. We can see journalistic ethics similarly—a human exchange that respects the needs, will, and dignity of the people journalism serves. Privacy, then, is not a secondary concern, but rather a primary good defended for the welfare of all citizens.