Security

Why big data and privacy are often at odds

Big data capture and analysis are powerful tools. It is time to consider who these tools benefit and who they may harm.

Image: iStock/Urs Siedentop

User privacy concerns date back at least 200 years. In the 1800s, newspapers were more than a little invasive in their quest for news. In the early 1900s, wiretapping came into play with the invention of the telephone recorder.

Both examples pale in comparison to what currently keeps privacy pundits awake at night: big data capture and analysis.

SEE: Security and Privacy: New challenges (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

"Past conflicts between privacy and new technology have generally related to what is now termed 'small data,' the collection and use of data sets by private- and public-sector organizations where the data are disseminated in their original form or analyzed by conventional statistical methods," mention the authors (the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) of Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective, a 2014 report to the US President. "Today's concerns about big data reflect both the substantial increases of data being collected and associated changes, both actual and potential, in how it is used."

The good and the bad

Jungwoo Ryoo, associate professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University, in The Conversation commentary Big data security problems threaten consumers' privacy suggests there are consumer privacy concerns with big data capture and analysis. "Companies are eager to deliver targeted advertising to you and tracking your every online move," writes Ryoo. "Big data makes this tracking easier to do, less expensive, and more easily analyzed."

"A service like IBM's Personality Insights can build a detailed profile of you, moving well beyond basic demographics or location information," adds Ryoo. "Your online habits can reveal aspects of your personality, such as whether you are outgoing, environmentally conscious, politically conservative, or enjoy travel in Africa."

If you are a marketer, tired of getting online ads that do not apply, or plagued by online fraud, then big data capture and analysis are beneficial. However, Ryoo cautions, "Industry representatives make benign claims about this capability, saying it improves users' online experiences. But it is not hard to imagine that the same information could be very easily used against us."

It seems a majority of consumers agree with Ryoo. In The Tradeoff Fallacy, researchers' report:

"New Annenberg survey results indicate that marketers are misrepresenting a vast majority of Americans by claiming Americans give out information about themselves as a trade-off for benefits they receive. To the contrary, the survey reveals most Americans do not believe that 'data for discounts' is a square deal."

Big data and insurance

Big data capture and analysis affecting privacy looms large in the insurance industry. Barnard Marr writing for Dataconomy states, "Big data in insurance will mean insurers combining the data already available to them which they have been using for decades — such as the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) — with emerging streams of data such as telematics and social media, to build up a more accurate picture of who we are, and how safe a bet they are placing by offering us insurance."

Marr adds, "The obvious danger here is that it can lead to ridiculous situations — such as when a woman unable to work due to depression had her insurance payouts stopped when her insurers found a picture of her on Facebook, smiling."

Big data and surveillance

Saving the best for last, it's time to look at government surveillance and how trying to improve public security could degrade everyone's privacy. "When law enforcement agencies collect information in the name of security, everyone is treated as a potential criminal or terrorist, whose information may eventually be used against them," explains Ryoo. "The authorities already know a lot about us, but could ask companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon to provide more intelligence such as a unencrypted version of our data, what search terms we are using, and what we are buying online."

SEE: Microsoft sues US government over secret data requests (CNET)

Something else to consider: The fact that it's "big" data makes it an enticing target. Ryoo explains, "Once collected, the data joins the rest of the information in being susceptible to abuse and breaches, as demonstrated in snooping incidents involving National Security Agency employees."

Last word

It's the scale of big data analysis that interests and concerns the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and privacy pundits. "By data mining and other kinds of analytics, non-obvious and sometimes private information can be derived from data that, at the time of its collection, seems to raise no, or manageable, privacy issues," mentions the PCAST report. "Such new information, used appropriately, may bring benefits to individuals and society."

However, the report continues, "The same data and analytics that provide benefits to individuals and society when used appropriately can also create potential harms — threats to individual privacy."

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About Michael Kassner

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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