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Privacy, big data and analytics: A perfect storm

June 6, 2014

Last month I referenced the report “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Value” written by the Executive Office of the White House (OSTP) and based upon their recently concluded 90-day review and comment period on the growing tension between big data and privacy.

There was also a companion report released soon afterwards: “Report to the President, Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective,” written by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST). Both of these documents present well-thought-out perspectives on privacy big data and analytics, with recommendations on how to proceed in respect to keeping these three forces in the right balance.

Not a surprise however, was the consensus agreement that, while there is tremendous potential in big data and analytics to transform government, commerce and philanthropy, there were major risks to personal privacy as we know it. As we have all seen, technology (and its application) is typically far ahead of policy and the law necessary to guide it. There is, in general, much less public awareness of just how invasive these capabilities may have already become in respect to personal privacy writ large, for example data brokers and government surveillance. This phenomenon can be a major inhibitor to success in all measures. For those interested in learning more, this article adds additional weight to my thoughts on the subject.

Richard Lee Perfect_storm June 2014.jpg

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is reproduced with permission.

I regard this as a perfect storm of events where we find extremely advanced technical capabilities and analytical techniques being used, both selectively and wholesale,:

  • To create new knowledge and deeper insights without any real controls
  • In a market experiencing a competitive feeding frenzy in respect to acquiring and leveraging such capabilities
  • Without any truly relevant policies or laws to protect privacy
  • Without consumer knowledge or consent in virtually all cases

I have also seen these same organizations advocating big data and analytics use cases designed to solve every problem that we have ever imagined, or experience in our lifetimes, without any notion of caution when it comes to intruding on individual’s private information.

As we move forward as an industry we must ask ourselves: “Have we communicated the risks and rewards of big data and analytics in a meaningful way to those who may ultimately be the primary beneficiaries of its capabilities or, more importantly, the victims of its abuse?” My answer to this would be a resounding, “NO!”

The essential question is “How can we diffuse this perfect storm before its potential destructive powers are unleashed?” I believe that the answer lies in honest and forthright communication of the impacts to personal privacy from big data and analytics in each and every of the use cases being proffered, whether they are innocuous or truly invasive. 

An informed consumer can then decide to participate/opt-in or not, and then live with their decision while reaping the proposed benefits and find themselves contending with unknown consequences that may come back to haunt them for decades to come. The established privacy paradigm of informed consent can still be very effective in the world of big data and analytics if combined with appropriate communications, a thorough analysis of risks and benefits to the consumer and the ability for them to opt-out at any time along the journey. Failure to adopt this type of approach could result in a flurry of new, more onerous legislation and policies, public damnation and financial retribution. It seems like a simple decision and path to mutual success to me.

For further information on the reports I referenced, see the links below;