Monday, February 28, 2005

Using Cell Phones to Warn of Disasters with a Privacy Metric

I've been discussing the idea of using cell phones to warn people in the path of a flood or chemical spill for close to a year now. Glad to see the Japanese Government is thinking along the same lines.

Short-term projects include using satellites to send alerts on natural disasters - such as tsunamis - straight to mobile phones. [Japan] recently signed up to a global satellite disaster network..."aimed at improving satellite photo responses to major disasters". |Link|


One of the problems with implementing a project like this in the United States is partially one of privacy. I think Americans will be very leary of the government tracking them through their cell phones for the one-in-a-million chance that they're in the path of a calamity.

I think Americans will suspect that this information would be used to track them for non-emergency uses and fears of Big Brother spying on them incessantly will lead to a backlash against giving law enforcement and disaster managmenet professionals access to GPS information from cell phones, except when the user dials 911.

With that in mind, I propose the development of a hierarchy of privacy needs that is tied to a numeric scale. 1 would be the lowest level of privacy, or things that everyone can know like your name or your favorite rock star. 10 would be the things a person never wants anyone to ever find out about, a person's most intimate secrets ( like a phobia or a socially unacceptable act carried out one night while really drunk).

By articulating the level of privacy we could argue for more or less privacy protections based upon specific situations and contexts. In a national emergency or a terrorist attack, items that were otherwise secret would become available to FEMA or CERT teams, thus something that was Level 9 would become Level 6 for the duration of the emergency.

The identity and location of registered sex offenders might be reduced to Level 1 or Level 1.

Other individuals might have their privacy levels increased because being stalked or being put in the witness protection program.

There would be lots and lots of decisions that would have to be made such as how every aspect of our lives should be rated and whether there should be opt-in and opt-out procedures. I am just sketching the idea here to get feedback.

I think this system could also be used to establish different sorts of penalties for different crimes. Hacking into the Pentagon's control of nuclear weapons should be far more frowned upon than stealing all of Citibank's money. Although both would generally be considered bad.

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