A panel of BCS experts and prominent guests discuss and debate how location data can be a source of good and also the road to privacy nightmares. Martin Cooper MBCS explores the questions that could put society on the right path.


In the online world, companies invest a huge amount of effort into understanding our surfing, clicking, swiping, befriending and buying habits. Capture enough data about what we’ve done online, the idea runs, and they’ll be able to predict what we’ll do next - and be there to sell us just the right thing when we arrive.

In the physical world, the same rules apply - only with more potency. If entities know where the public is - in time and space - they’ll be able to paint an even sharper data picture of their lives, loves and make-up; so sharp we might not like what’s being drawn.

When it comes to location data, the results can be very powerful: consider how location tracking is being used to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results can also be dystopic. Take location information and overlay other data sources and organisations can infer facts about us that we’d rather not expose. Affairs can be discovered, robberies planned and kidnappings executed - all thanks to location data.

A recent BCS webinar saw a panel of experts put location services under the microscope.

Here are some key talking points.


  • Charles Kennelly, Chief Technology Officer, Esri UK
    Charles has been Esri UK’s CTO since 2008, bringing 25 years of experience delivering projects of all scales across multiple sectors.

  • Bill Mitchell FBCS CITP OBE, Director of Policy, BCS The Chartered Institute for IT
    Bill leads BCS’ policy and parliamentary engagement. He previously spent 20 years in research into the mathematical foundations of computer science and was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to computing and artificial intelligence education.

  • Chris Yapp FBCS, Futurist
    Chris is a widely experienced futurist and a contributor to BCS, writing the long running BCS Future Blog.


Brian Runciman, Head of Content and Insight, BCS

1. Is the good worth more than the bad?

The new NHS COVID-19 app offers ‘masses of public health benefits’, says Bill Mitchell FBCS. But, to achieve these we, as individuals, need to think about how much of our privacy - and our personal freedoms - we’re willing to give up.

‘It gets tricky because the benefits are population-wide,’ Mitchell says. ‘I’m giving up some of my freedoms to help other people. If I’m selfish, I won’t care... I won’t give up my freedoms.’

There are also, Mitchell says, profound trade-offs to be made about trusting the government with our data. How long will the information be kept and for what else will it be used? Some parts of our Government, he says, hasn’t got a ‘glowing track record’ when it comes to protecting data either.

Mitchell applauds the fact that it is open-sourced.

2. Can we always predict cutting edge tech’s consequences?

When it comes to using public location data via the NHS COVID-19 app, Mitchell says that he feels the government is trying to be ethical.

But, the problem is, in some ways, these are new, cutting edge and emergent technologies.

As such, Mitchell says: ‘You think you’re being ethical, but you can’t map out the unintended uses - or abuses - of this stuff. Trying to future-proof the way you are being ethical is flaming difficult.’

3. Do we debate privacy before acting?

Location sharpens and intensifies the need for debate around privacy.

‘The potential for use and misuse of location data is huge,’ says Charles Kennelly. ‘We saw in South Korea... they published information around track and trace of individuals who were infected. They were successful in controlling [the virus] but they revealed things about people having affairs.’

There needs to be a clear and informed debate about location data and its implications.

4. Is new technology protecting the right people?

When comes to achieving the location’s benefits - like track and trace’s protective possibilities - users need newish phones. The problem is, Chris Yapp says, the poorest in society often have accesses to the oldest and least capable technology.

‘The elderly are likely to have the poorest technology,’ he says. ‘And they are the ones most likely get the worst COVID [symptoms]. Using a generic device like a smartphone means we’re getting information about the part of the population that has the least likelihood of mortality.’

5. Should the government release a physical tracking device?

For track and trace, the ideal solution might be for everybody in the population to wear a government-mandated tracking device.

Prison tagging shows that the technology exists but the ethical implications of such a move are unconscionable.

6. Does location data need different security?

When it comes to handling, storing and processing location data, ‘security and obfuscation are critical’, says Charles Kennelly.

Obfuscation is particularly important, Kennelly explains, because identity can be revealed unintentionally. A census may, for example, be anonymous but, if the sample size is very small, it makes identifying the data subject a comparatively trivial job.

‘Location is so powerful, I think we need to approach privacy in a completely different way,’ Kennelly says. ‘Right now we are not in control as individuals.’

Kennelly points to the music industry as a potential source of technical inspiration. Rewind twenty years, he explains, and the music industry faced a disaster as people began ripping and sharing MP3s.

As a reaction, the music industry instigated digital rights management that saw the publisher deciding who can play the music.

‘It is controlled at an operating system level... At a silicon level,’ he says. ‘We should be taking a similar approach with our privacy. We should be able to enforce who uses our data - at the silicon level. It is technically possible to do… We just don’t have the motivation to do it.’

7. Does the public understand enough to make a decision?

‘People who aren’t in the tech industry - the public - see no problem with sharing their data,’ says Bill Mitchell. ‘But, it’s not that they don’t care it’s that they don’t understand... They don’t understand the risks.’

This means, he says, it is hard to have an informed debate with the public - one where the dangers are unpicked.

‘The COVID app is a great example,’ he continues. ‘There was quite a bit of scaremongering - some justifiable, some not. But that created a justifiable negative backlash. What’s been positive is people are downloading the new app.’

The challenge remains, however: how can the organisations like BCS engage with the public about what data privacy is, how it works and why they need to care.

8. What is really being tracked?

Location data - or location-enabled devices - have a habit of revealing more about us than we might think. You might be in your car with your phone turned off but, if the car has location features somebody will know where you are - not just the car.

Similarly, smart utility meters can disclose more information about us than we might think. They don’t just report about electricity usage but also when the energy is being used.

‘What can you find out about what a person is doing in their home by tracking energy usage?’ Chris Yapp asks. ‘You can discover people are watching porn channels at three o’clock in the morning by watching peeks in their energy usage and spotting patterns... This has been proved to be possible.’

‘We need to think in a much broader sense,’ he says. ‘If I get into that car, do I give it permission to track me?’

9. Does Silicon Valley dictates or debate?

The NHS Track and Trace app reveals something very striking about the relationship between our Government and Silicon Valley, Bill Mitchell says.

‘Public health policy has - to some extent - been determined by what Silicon Valley companies have allowed the UK Government to do,’ he says. ‘Policy decisions about public health in the UK have been dictated by technology choices of the companies that provide Android and Apple.’

Maybe those have made the right decisions. But, Mitchell feels, that the public should have been involved in the debate around what UK citizens wanted in their track and trace app. There needs to be an informed debate between the public, Government and the tech industry.