Collecting data? Beware of who else wants it

Robert Gellman

Do tractors have privacy rights? That isn't quite as absurd a question as it sounds.

Information policy concerns can arise in just about any context. You probably spend a lot of time thinking about the use and disclosure of information in a medical, financial or Internet context. But federal managers need to broaden their horizons. You'll even find lessons learned down on the farm.

Late in 1998, I was introduced to a whole new range of questions when I was invited to participate in a conference on privacy and freedom of information in agriculture. It was sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation. Such topics are familiar enough, but applying these policies in an entirely new arena was intriguing.

Old MacDonald had a link

Modern farm tractors have transponders that send signals to satellites with information about location, activities, soil conditions and maintenance. Suddenly, a tractor produces a new category of data never before so readily available, much like a frequent shopper card at the grocery store.

This strange setting raises the familiar series of information technology policy issues. Who has the right to collect, maintain and use the information? What should be disclosed to the tractor's owner, and can the owner make choices about what data is disclosed? Can the tractor manufacturer exploit the data the transponder produces? Even if the farmer is the only one who maintains the data, can federal or state agencies obtain it for regulatory use?

The same questions arise with transponders in automobiles and trucks. The information about each vehicle tells something that could be used to help or hurt the owner. Should state motor vehicle bureaus or insurers discover who redlined a car out on Highway 29? Aggregating information about many cars creates valuable data about traffic patterns and driving habits that might be of vital interest to the Transportation Department, local road authorities or businesses such as fast-food franchises looking for ripe locations.

Similarly, collecting enough information about farm conditions creates data that can be used for sales and corporate planning. The data might even affect markets because of the new ability to make inferences about crop yields and commodity prices.

Other farm information matters have a familiar ring. In one example from the conference, a conflict arose among agencies. The Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Agriculture Department helps farmers with conservation issues and collects and maintains pollution information for dairy farms.

Everything was fine until the Environmental Protection Agency demanded access to the information to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Suddenly, a beneficial service was being forced into the role of unwilling informant. Clearly, any disclosures by NRCS would undermine its credibility with its farmer clients.

Reaching an agreement that reflected the needs of the agencies and the interests of the farmers required careful negotiation.

Technology and bureaucracy are driving forces as potent on the farm as they are in other spheres. Each new data-producing technology'whether in consumer identification, geographic information systems, supermarket shopper records or satellite imagery, to name a few'raises similar policy questions.

As agencies create or install technology that collects information about the activities and assets of people and companies, they must pay attention to the broader context. When you develop a new information resource, you may discover that you suddenly have a sought-after commodity on your hands that can be used in positive and negative ways.

Watch for repercussions

The world may beat a path to your door seeking ways to exploit that data. But what may be interesting and useful to you can be threatening or harmful to those about whom the data was gathered.

Agency managers have to analyze data-gathering programs in advance to avoid unforeseen consequences that threaten the basic function of the program and everyone connected with it.

The conference report, Data and Information About Natural Resources on Agriculture Land: No Rules, Just Rights by Congressional Research Service senior analyst Jeffrey Zinn was recently published. You can find it on the National Arbor Day Foundation Web site, at www.arborday.com.

A fresh application of familiar policies in a new setting can be enlightening.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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