On the Front Lines of Big Data, Privacy Concerns Surface
Our recent post on big data looked back to McKinsey Global Institute’s seminal report on the topic, and forward to a post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network that sees big data planning becoming as much of an SOP for the corporate world as strategic planning. Today we look to the front lines, specifically to a huge barrier that needs to be addressed for big data to move forward: privacy.
A recent article on The New York Times compares the emergence of big data to the advent of mainframe computers, in terms of the privacy issues raised. “It really freaked people out,” notes Daniel J. Weitzner, a former senior Internet policy advisor in the Obama administration. Yet mainframes were an engine for growth and innovation, and big data is expected to be similar, enabling faster and smarter decision making in virtually every field of human enterprise. Nonetheless, the article notes, the idea of a data-driven society has raised at least one large red flag: “The latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy—an issue so crucial that it could trump all others and upset the big data bandwagon.”
This concern is echoed in an article on ZDNet.com that focuses on governments’ use of big data. The challenge here is “distinguishing between data collected for protection and data collection that violates our privacy, all while respecting the very core of our Constitution.”
On another front, the World Economic Forum, in a report prepared with the Boston Consulting Group, recommends a shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use of data. According to the report, curbs on the use of personal data, combined with the use of new technologies, can give individuals control of their own information while allowing important data assets to flow relatively freely. Here’s how the Times summarizes this idea:
“The Forum report suggests a future in which all collected data would be tagged with software code that included an individual’s preferences for how his or her data is used. All uses of data would have to be registered, and there would be penalties for violators. For example, one violation might be a smartphone application that stored more data than is necessary for a registered service like a smartphone game or a restaurant finder.”
Yet a criticism of the report is that it “puts way too much faith in the tools and too little emphasis on strong rules, particularly in moving away from curbs on data collection.”
Dr. Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT and an advisor to the World Economic Forum’s initiatives on big data and personal data, recommends several basic tenets on use of data. The individual:
- Has the right to possess his or her data
- Has the right to control how it is used
- Has the right to destroy or distribute it as he or she sees fit
If these tenets are observed, creating what Pentland calls “a new deal on data,” the barriers seen most ominously in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Spielberg’s Minority Report may be overcome as big data assumes its role as a key driver of growth and innovation.
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