Big Data Leads to Big Headaches

bigdataYour car, your house, your appliances, your electric meter, your smartphone, your debit or credit cards and your computer are all sending large amounts of data about you to the “Big Data”datasphere. Yet, few consumers know who or what “Big Data” is or its relationship to “Big Brother.”   They do know that Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Tumblr are all companies offering cloud-based consumer services — largely for “free”.  Each of these — and many other — companies collect massive amounts of data and then use them in ways that most of us do not understand.  But it turns out that these free service have a price — you.

  • Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target figured out how to data-mine its way into your womb, to figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you need to start buying diapers and infamously sent a baby-care coupon to a teenager whose parents did know she was pregnant.  Busted!
  • Data from the sensors on cell phones can reveal when automobile drivers make dangerous maneuvers.  Studies show that the riskiest group of drivers (young males) reduce risky maneuvers up to 78% if they know they’re being monitored.  But are they comfortable with such monitoring?   Busted!
  • Racial discrimination against an applicant for a bank loan is supposedly illegal. But computer model factors in the educational level of an applicant’s parent could be found to correlate to race and be used in judging the viability of a loan.   Busted!
  • One company (Certona) offers personalized retail experiences for individual shoppers, without the person actually having to supply any data. Based on a computer IP address, Certona’s software is able to know a shopper’s location, and then tailor the online experience based on local trends, seasonality, weather and even the shopper’s browsing history.   Busted!
  • Energy utilities are entering the big data venue with a bang.   They’ve begun to analyze data drawn from their recently rolled-out smart meters so as to  better understand how customers use energy.   While regulated, this data is somewhat secure.  But increasing deregulation of utility services is on the horizon and that data will be flowing into the datasphere.  In the near future, the “smart home” will be able to recognize its you and adjust the temperature, lighting, music and television accordingly.  This data will be sent to various service providers, aggregated and sent on to even more big data companies for “commoditization” (i.e. extracting dollars for data). This energy consumption data can provide a very accurate portrait of most activities that go on within your house.   Busted!

When Hillary Clinton, lambasted the Chinese  for allegedly hacking into Google’s computers, she used the term “the global networked commons”. The idea is that the internet is a shared environment, like the oceans or airspace, which requires international co-operation to make the best use of it.  U.S. policy makers have been thinking of data flows on the Internet as a huge public good which everyone is entitled to use.    However, Europe has a different take on this important issue.

European big data debate has been quite differently focused.  A proposed set of European Union regulations on Big Data  contains about 90 articles regulating data privacy and protection, according to, based on the proposition that control of individual, personal data is a fundamental human right, and includes the right to consent, the right to access, and the “right to be forgotten,” within limits. The European debate has included discussion of the longstanding concern as to decisions made by automated data processing without significant human judgment — so-called “automated individual decisions”, or “profiling”. The European profiling debate has a philosophical core: is the personal dignity and integrity of individuals com- promised by decisions made by automated processes, as contrasted to individual decision making by humans constrained by laws against discrimination and also, perhaps, by human empathy?

European policy makers also have concerns about lack of transparency and lack of control or accountability of businesses dealing with personal information about them. These concerns are often not expressed in terms of these basic privacy principles and often do not map to existing laws. It includes use of trusted third-party arrangements; use of pseudonymisation keys and arrangements for separation and security of decryption keys; contractual limitation of the use of the data to a particular project or projects; contractual purpose limitations — for example, that the data can only be used by the recipient for an agreed purpose or set of purposes; contractual restriction on the disclosure of the data; limiting the copying of, or the number of copies of, the data; required training of staff with access to data, especially on security and data minimisation principles; personnel background checks for those granted access to data; controls over the ability to bring other data into the environment (allowing the risk of re-identification by linkage or association to be managed); contractual prohibition on any attempt at re-identification and measures for the destruction of any accidentally re-identified personal data; arrangements for technical and organisational security — for example, staff confidentiality agreements; and arrangements for the destruction or return of the data on completion of the project.

Governments could define best practice on dealing with information flows and the processing of data, just as they require firms to label processed foods with the ingredients or impose public-health standards. The World Trade Organisation, which oversees the free flow of physical trade, might be a suitable body for keeping digital goods and services flowing too. But it will not be quick or easy.  In the meantime,  U.S. consumers are left to fend for themselves against Big Data.

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