Keep Off My Big Data

July 22, 2013

big data privacy

big data privacy

Big Data is exciting stuff. It’s a big deal that we can collect such a broad range of information about everybody on the planet, and use it not only to understand ourselves better today, but actually predict future behaviour, and best of all, improve the quality of our individual and collective lives.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series features the character Harry Seldon, who pioneers the science of psychohistory to predict and plan the future path of humanity. His benign vision seeks to steer the human race through inevitable adversity to an ultimate utopian state. Sounds good. (As for what actually happens… no spoilers here.)

We’re not quite there yet. In their terrific introduction to the topic, Big Data – A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and ThinkKenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger describe how Big Data is helping to manage epidemics and city housing problems. Less altruistically, it’s being used for marketing campaigns and the selection of winning stocks. 

Much of Big Data’s utility is derived from its bigness. It’s in the aggregate rather than the specific that value is being extracted. It doesn’t matter that Sally Cinema-goer googled Twilight before it opened – what’s important is that 10 million other people also googled it. With that information, the movie industry can predict the success of their film. Likewise, in the case of the analysts looking at search terms to determine epidemic outbreaks, the data is only significant when taken as a whole. But as Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger point out, the ethical situation is already getting greyer, with concerns that authorities might act on the individual – such as imposing a quarantine – based on such data.

When data becomes personal, it’s not just some anonymized, aggregated insight that’s being gleaned.

And when that personal data has my name on it, it’s mine. It’s my big fat data.

That brings me to PRISM. Big Data was published just prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s data gathering activities. Yet the authors cite the whistle-blowing of William Binney, and the fact that the NSA is collecting as much personal information about Americans and non-Americans as it can. Not only to crunch massive amounts of aggregated data to obtain insights about societies around the world – but to be able to investigate specific information about individuals. Personal information: Who we know. What we say. Where we go.

The US government has been doing this covertly, without the consent of its own citizens. That’s bad enough. Worse is that the US government is gathering this information about citizens of other countries. If that sounds fair enough to you, consider if these activities were being conducted by China, or North Korea, or Iran.

Speaking as a Canadian, I don’t want my own government collecting this information, on Canadians or anyone else. And it’s certainly disturbing that it should be collected by a government that I didn’t elect. Personal information needs to remain private – unless people choose to release it publicly.

It’s time to assert our inherent right to privacy. It’s my big fat data. Keep off.