My Big Data: Concerns, Opportunities and Policies


The Social Disruption Survey, conducted earlier this year and reported in this blog, identifies Privacy as, of the issues that it considered, the area of greatest public concern in the impact that information technology is having on society. Personal use of information technology has many benefits for many people. In addition to enabling global communications, it provides services that can greatly improve people’s lives.

Today, there is growing awareness that as usage of the internet and social media takes place, the companies that provide the communications tools that people use, the organisations that provide online information and services and the security services that provide public protection gather large amounts of data.

In previous posts in this blog on this topic there has been discussion of the public awareness of these data collection practices. We have seen research that shows most people are not aware of the extent of the information collected and are not comfortable with the level of control that they have over the data collection, storage and usage that is made of it by those who collect it, trade or sell it, combine it with other data and manipulate it. Public information campaigns have sought to inform the public about the extent of the data collection that takes place and personal risks that are taken when information is shared online. Schools have taught students about their responsible use of information technology.

We have also discussed the appropriate policies that governments and organisations might adopt in dealing with these issues. In Canada our system of federal and provincial Privacy Commissioners was established to provide public protection, education and guidance to government on appropriate behaviours and responses to the rapidly changing privacy environment. As with other areas of the social impact of information technology on society, the privacy area is changing faster than governments can deal with. There remain many areas of concern.

The Social Disruption Survey revealed public concerns about privacy in a number of areas. For University of Waterloo students “The impact of the internet and social media on my personal privacy ” is ranked fourth of the 25 social impact of information technology issues that were the subject of questions in the survey. “The use of my data by government” and “the use of my data by companies” were also indicated to be of significant concern to the students.

While fears exist about the impact that corporate and government use of data is having now and will increasingly have in the future, those bodies are increasingly seeing data as being very important to their future development. In a recent interview for the University of Waterloo, Hitachi’s Paul Lewis emphasised his view of the centrality of data to future business strategy. He argues that the combination of data with the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence will transform business and government, enabling new products and services to be developed and business models to be revolutionised.

Public concerns about the increased use of data appear to be substantial. Increased focussing of marketing campaigns and product offering that data enables are viewed with suspicion and seen by many as overly manipulative.

These concerns are heightened by perceptions of the use of data by political organisations. While big data will transform companies it is also changing the way that politics is conducted. Use of personal data from social media and other sources in political campaigns is seen as being a threat to democratic processes, especially where it makes foreign political interference easier.

We are seeing a growth in interest in the use of data by companies, government and political groups who see their interests being advanced by it. At the same time we appear to be seeing increasing public concern about the collection and use of personal data. This is an area of potential conflict.

While public concerns are often about the misuse or abuse of the data that is collected from them, it is also important to note that data offers the opportunity to dramatically improve many people’s lives. These opportunities are discussed in many posts inside this blog and include improvements in healthcare, where health related research can be greatly strengthened leading to longer, happier and more productive lives. Gordon Feller’s interview for this blog highlights ways that data will impact cities, leading to better services and positive environmental impacts. Data collection in developing countries can improve the work of humanitarian development organisations. Many opportunities exist for using personal data to improve the quality of people’s lives.

Privacy advocates therefor face a dilemma. Use of the internet, social media and other forms of information technology results in the collection of data. Social media tools that are an important part of most people’s lives in developed and, increasingly, developing countries today have been created because of the commercial value that people create by providing their data when they use them. That is why they are mostly free for users.

Concerns appear to be increasing that data which is shared using social media tools is being used in inappropriate ways by companies, governments and others. Meanwhile, these organisations are increasingly seeing their use of data as being strategically important in their immediate strategic development and this is likely to result in new products and services that will themselves have personal and societal benefits. In addition to this, there are many areas of life where the purely social benefits of the use of data will be dramatic in the future.

Restrictions on the use of data are therefore the subject of extensive debate. Strongly restrictive policies may provide greater public protections but at the same time may result in lesser public benefit. Strongly open data policies may expose the public to unacceptable risks.

These issues were the subject of a book review in the New York Times recently. Amy Webb reviewed two books with opposing views on what should be done. Andreas Weigend, previously the Chief Scientist at Amazon, describes the processes that are used to collect data and how it is used. Weigend argues that the benefits that we get from sharing data should make us willing to share but that a set of rights should be established which provide us with protection. He argues that these rights should include corporate participation in privacy ratings that will indicate how our data is used and that the public should be able to control their own data – that there should be a right to “amend, blur and import or export our own data into any system we please.”

The opposite position is adopted by Kevin Mitnick – previously a hacker who served five years in jail for his hacking activities. Mitnick provides guidance on protecting personal privacy and provides a darker view of how personal data sharing creates vulnerability. Mitnick’s arguments lend support to policies for more restriction of corporate and government data usage.

This post has discussed current issues in Privacy, highlighting the growth in public concern alongside the growth in data focussed activities by companies, governments and other organisations. While substantial public benefits are emerging from the sharing of data, there are also significant dangers that public discussion should consider in efforts to influence public policy.

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