Push, Pull, and Spill: A Transdisciplinary Case Study in Municipal Open Government

Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


M. Ryan Calo, Peter Schmiedeskamp, Mike Simon, Jan Whittington, Jesse Woo and Meg Young


Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 1899-1966, 2016


The city of Seattle began to offer open access to data touching on many aspects of residents’ daily lives. Seattle sought to balance privacy with transparency. Anonymizing data might not adequately protect privacy.

Policy Relevance

Cities should include provisions protecting privacy in contracts with outside firms. City agencies should adopt data protocols to protect privacy.

Main Points

  • “Smart city” technologies that collect data for municipalities include video cameras, utility meters that monitor individual appliances, parking meters, and apps for bicyclists; cities also collect data in providing business permits, recreational facilities, and other services.
  • Data brokers often use information supplied by government to identify and profile individuals.
  • Access to municipal data could improve local government transparency and accountability for authorities such as prison guards or police.
  • Municipal data could be used to start new businesses, target marketing, or offer new products.
  • Municipal data is anonymized before release, and sensitive items such as social security numbers can be kept private.
  • Combining multiple data sets increases the risk that individuals in anonymized data could be re-identified by name, especially if the data sets include the addresses of homes or businesses.
  • Some favor limiting the use of data for purposes other than that for which it was collected.
    • Use restrictions would be hard to enforce and could conflict with free speech.
    • Social norms block some awful uses, but data brokers can be insensitive to these norms.
  • Open data threatens the safety of police officers, victims of domestic violence in “safe houses,” and others; data could also be used to harm infrastructure such as the power grid.
  • Government employees could manipulate open data for their own purposes, by editing it or releasing it selectively.
  • The police department struggles to keep up with requests to access police records from body cams, in-car video, 911 calls, photos, and other data.
  • The City of Seattle should:
    • Establish a review board or other governing structures for data.
    • Assess privacy threats that could arise from joining data sets.
    • Make municipal data available only on certain conditions.
    • Draft a standard agreement that would obligate city vendors to protect privacy.


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