Lassonde professor wins award for paper on 'smart' cities and privacy

York University Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Yan Shvartzshnaider has received the 2021 Lee Dirks Award at the annual iConference.

This award is presented to the authors of best full research paper at the multidisciplinary forum where information scholars, researchers and professionals share their insights on critical information issues in contemporary society.

Yan Shvartzshnaider

Yan Shvartzshnaider

Shvartzshnaider’s award winning paper, “Data and Privacy in a Quasi-Public Space: Disney World as a Smart City,” was co-authored during his work at New York University with Professor Madelyn Rose Sanfilippo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The paper focuses on Walt Disney World as case study to explore governance and privacy challenges associated with operation of a “smart” city. This stems from Walt Disney World’s approach to employ tracking technologies, which can assess location monitoring, facial recognition and biometrics to improve the consumer experience and support commercial operations.

The central tenant of the paper focuses on understanding the challenges and privacy implications of these data handling practices.

“We use Contextual Integrity and Governing Knowledge Commons frameworks to empirically analyze cross-context data integration, data collection and processing, social perceptions of privacy practices,” explained Shvartzshnaider. “Our analysis shows the extent Walt Disney World’s data collection strategies contrast with normative customer expectations, corporate values, data collection and sharing practices.”

The paper recommends that “smart” cities should engage all stakeholders, explore feedback and develop evaluation mechanisms to reflect local values and norms.

The implications of this work are wide-reaching and although governance and privacy challenges contextual, the findings may be applicable to cities and public spaces across the globe that are moving to adopt “smart” technology.

In Toronto, for example, projects such as Sidewalk Toronto, have started to explore this technology. Within their paper, Shvartzshnaider and Sanfilippo consider what can be learned about privacy, surveillance and innovation for other public applications, stressing the limitations of and potential social harms from Walt Disney World as a model for public services.

The Lee Dirks Award has been presented at the conference since 2013 and is named in honour of a long-time friend and supported of iConference, Lee Dirks. Previous winners of the award can be found online.

About Yan Shvartzshnaider and the Privacy Rhythm Research Lab

After joining York University in January 2021 as assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Shvartzshnaider established the Privacy Rhythm Research Lab. The group develops methodologies and privacy-enhancing tools to help incorporate a socially meaningful conception of privacy, which meets peoples’ expectations and is ethically defensible.

Broad research interests of the laboratory include:

  • usable privacy
  • sociotechnical systems
  • contextual integrity: theory and applications
  • information technology policy

The full paper, “Data and Privacy in a Quasi-Public Space: Disney World as a Smart City, is published in Lecture Notes in Computer Science and can be accessed online.

Students and colleagues interested in working with Shvartzshnaider are welcome to contact him for available opportunities.

Other papers by Shvartzshnaider on this topic include:

  • “Disaster Privacy/Privacy Disaster, published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology in 2020. Available online.
  • “Going Against the (Appropriate) Flow: A Contextual Integrity Approach to Privacy Policy Analysis,” published in proceedings of the Seventh AAAI Conference on Human Computation and Crowdsourcing in 2019. Available online.
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