Smartphone tips to the city must also protect privacy

info@islandpacket.comOctober 18, 2013 

20130516 Smartphone

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There should be few qualms about the city of Beaufort's plans for a smartphone app that allows residents to quickly report code violations, such as a neighbor's overgrown grass or scattered trash.

That's not to say there should be no qualms. Use of this tool must come with caveats.

Easier citizen involvement in code enforcement is welcome. All local governments need more eyes on key regulations, including sign ordinances and the condition of buffers along waterfronts and highways. However, the bottom line remains the same. A code is only as good as its enforcement. The challenge is not high-tech ways of reporting potential violations, but what the staff does with the complaints.

And that's where qualms and caveats come in.

This program has the potential to not only gather and compile user data, but to also put it in the hands of both government and the private sector.

The Government Outreach app -- adopted by SafeBuilt, the city's private code-enforcement contractor -- is free and available for Android and iPhone systems. It allows users to file a complaint and attach photos and descriptions of the problems. It also uses a phone's GPS settings to pinpoint the alleged violation's location.

People can check the status of reports they've made on the app, which will indicate whether the case is closed, according to city enforcement officer Dawn Boren, who adds that she might also contact complainants if they include their contact information. Boren said contact information would remain confidential.

But our concern is the potential for this app to collect quite a bit of data about a user whether they offer it up or not.

The city needs to offer details about the steps it will take to ensure data is kept safe and, when appropriate, confidential.

The city of Beaufort must also:

  • Take all necessary steps to ensure SafeBuilt does not use any data it receives for any purpose other than enforcing city codes.

  • Ensure SafeBuilt does not depart with user information if the contract is ever terminated or not renewed. The current contract makes such information the city's exclusive property, but digital files are easily copied, and the city must develop safeguards to see that they are not.

  • Come up with a plan to address how users would be protected in the event of a security breach.

  • Maintain other means of filing reports so that doing so electronically isn't the only way.

  • Devise a plan to prevent and punish malicious reports, particularly those made anonymously.

  • This might sound extreme, but in today's environment of online security and privacy concerns, it behooves local governments to err on the side of caution to maintain needed public participation and trust.

    And none of this should be a deal-breaker. This could even provide a template for other programs and tools that use technology to transmit information between the public and the public body.

    The Government Outreach app deserves execution worthy of such a good idea.

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