• Big Data Is A Big Privacy Problem

    by  • February 13, 2013 • Privacy, Trends

    Everyday more and more information about you is uploaded into numerous databases. While you sleep, eat, work, buy things, sell things, go to the bank, commute – essentially during everything you do there is data about you being created, uploaded, processed, analyzed, and used. This is such an important subject that it was a topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

    The data is collected from numerous collection points – police cruisers scanning your license plate as you drive to work, video and corresponding banking information when you took money out of the ATM, purchase history and preferences when you bought a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s, what you like to look at and read when you searched Amazon, where you are at and what you spoke about when you called you spouse from your iPhone, and even who your friends are and what they like as you scan Facebook. Data is being created and collected everywhere about you.

    The data comes in many different forms – banking data, utility data, credit data, video, and others.  Video based data, though nascent in its development, offers a huge opportunity to add even more information to big data.  And this information doesn’t remain segmented and unique, it is shared, augmented, collated, and sold to others.

    The bad (or good, depending on your perspective) part of this is that we have come to accept this immense effort to collect information about us as a normal part of living in a modern society. Companies and government both seem to be content to allow this to continue to grow. But the data collection is actually a smaller issue then the mining of the resultant databases for pattern, relationships, or correlations that would otherwise remain hidden or unrecognizable primarily due to an issue of scale. This is the Big Data problem. It is very real and very relevant today.

    Remember the story about Target and how they were able to identify customer who were pregnant  before even their own families knew? They were able to do this through various forms of data collection and tracking of customer purchasing habits that were then analyzed for patterns that would represent a customer who would be likely to purchase other baby related items. But think about this – what else might companies or government agencies be able to identify through the use of Big Data? Lots of things from the likelihood that will purchase a certain product to the management of traffic patterns to the likelihood that you have or will develop cancer. The number of questions that can be asked against a Big Data backdrop is likely endless.

    All of this could be great if you are a marketer or a bit scary if you are the consumer. But does this really constitute a privacy problem? Yes, for three main reasons.

    1. Awareness. First, very few people are aware of how much data is actually being collected about them. For example, are most people aware that the devices seen mounted on the trunks of police cruisers are digital cameras that scan your license plate and immediately run it through a data base to check for a connection to a crime or infraction? Or that pictures are being taken of them as the enter a retail store along with a host of other data about what you purchased, how you paid for it, and what you didn’t buy that is matched against a lot of other kinds of data about you.
    2. Definition. Second, Big Data is blurring the lines to what is considered personal information. Right now there is no clear understanding of what information is considered personal and what isn’t. Often, this is in the eyes of the beholder. What I may consider fine to share may be and is not likely the same as you. And it will be very different then what a marketer may consider personal. There are a host of other issues here also. If personal information is collected and the collated with other information, is it still personal? Is it really possible to remove personally identifiable aspects from any data? And can consumers and others control the use of that data? So where does the public data and the private data begin and end.
    3. Growth. Third, Big Data is kind of like good chocolate – once you get a taste of it you almost always want more. When it comes to Big Data, if companies and government agencies can extract any really good insights at a reasonable cost, then they are going to want more. This leads to the collection of more data and the longer retention of data (given the small cost of storage) on the probability that they are more insights to gain.

    Though the collection of personal data will not go away, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered about personal data, Big Data, and privacy – What is personal data? Who actually owns the data? What control do consumers have over the collection and use of data about them? How do we regulate the collection and use of Big Data?  Government agencies, business interests, and privacy interests all need to come together soon to answer these questions and get a handle on the Big Data privacy problem.