Transportation Is Getting More Connected, What Could That Mean For Personal Data?

Aug 20, 2019

Pittsburgh officials have announced efforts aimed at shaping the city’s transportation future, from a pilot program aimed at linking modes of transit to long-range plans. City leadership has been intentionally slow to adopt personal modes of transport such as electric scooters, but it welcomed companies interested in testing autonomous vehicles; a self-driving shuttle to connect Oakland and Hazelwood remains a possibility.

Our personal data gets captured as we go about our daily lives. Every time we buy something online or hail an Uber, companies learn a little bit about us. A future that relies on autonomous transport will require even more data collection, which could make it easier to identify individual humans in a sea of data points, Mike Skirpan explained in a post-agenda discussion hosted by Pittsburgh City Council last month. Skirpan is special faculty at Carnegie Mellon University where he focuses on ethics in computing.

WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss spoke with Skirpan further about the questions raised by a more autonomous future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Skirpan is special faculty at Carnegie Mellon University where he focuses on ethics in computing. He is also the executive director at Wilkinsburg-based nonprofit Community Forge.
Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA

To your mind, what is the difference between, say, public transit agencies collecting information versus a private company, providing a transit service, collecting information?

One big difference is the redress we have when things go wrong. If I find out that all my movements are being tracked and it's all being shared with, like, the police department, I actually have some redress. If it's held by the private sector, the only redress we have is I can maybe opt out of the service.

Companies are absolutely going to continually add more sophistication to how they can squeeze every cent out of a piece of data. How much data they're collecting, the velocity, how often they collect that data, and then what inferences they can make, and how to make it useful for selling. And as a company that makes sense: their goal is to increase the financial gain on every engineered part of their system.

Are most of us aware of how our data is collected and used?

I think that we are becoming more aware as a society that data collection is kind of everywhere. But what kind of uses of data are fair? And what [are the] implications of that collection? If we don’t like the implications or the uses of certain data, then maybe we should be going back to like, well, how did they get it in the first place?

How do we know how to even ask these questions: what is fair, what’s being collected?

We’ve made regulations around health data and around financial data and I think that now personal online data probably needs some kind of protection.

I think it kind of does start with imagining the scenarios we might find ourselves in if everyone has everything about us. Where do we feel uncomfortable? And where do we feel like our norms are being violated? And then kind of working backwards and being like, well I don't want to be in a situation where my insurance provider knows anything about my social media.

What kinds of questions would you have individuals and city officials ask of companies providing services?

The first thing I want people to ask of city officials, and I hope city officials ask of the companies, is what is the real value tradeoff? Because I think right now everything is about just attracting tech companies to cities. Is that really a great tradeoff for the like 100,000 people that are now opted into this sort of research project?

A really big question that we all might want to ask ourselves is, as more technology is developed by the private sector and as the promise of the future is one that is primarily privatized, what is the value of public spaces? Whether that's parks or the private sanctuary of your home or your public transit system or your public water system. Are there things that we want to keep as public goods, despite the fact that maybe it means they won't rapidly be technologically the most advanced things?