Big Data: A Private Matter?



There’s no denying that big data has huge potential and ability to improve many different aspects of society nowadays. For example, it can reveal correlations in some factors at your business that increases sales or help politicians better reach their constituents.It can help save money and help the environment in the Energy and Water industries. It even could eliminate timetables and schedules as we know them. But just because there is all this potential that doesn’t mean that there aren’t barriers and obstacles that big data must overcome first.


One of these obstacles is balancing the acquisition of data with not invading an individual’s privacy. People are worried that the data they supply to different companies or entities will not be used for only their intended purpose. In fact Vivian Reding, Vice President of the European Commission recently reported that 80% of British citizens have this exact fear. Therefore, big data must find a way to still receive adequate inputs to produce the positive outputs while proving to society that it will not abuse their information.

So why do people have these concerns anyways? Well for one thing because stories of this practice occur occasionally. One such instance was when Target began sending a girl in Minnesota ads for baby food and clothes because she fit the profile of a pregnant woman causing her father to discover the secret. The issue in this case was that the girl hadn’t informed Target of her pregnancy; rather, they suspected her pregnancy due to data that put her in a pregnant woman’s profile. Another reason is because there has been a change in the expectation of privacy as technology has advanced. Jim Adler, Chief Privacy Officer of Intelius, summed this up with an anectdote from his childhood. “I grew up in Greensborough, Alabama, the population was 1,200. If you cut school, everyone knew it by dinner. The expectation of privacy was low. Now the expectation of privacy… has been pulled away.” In the past there was a low expectation of privacy and everyone was aware of that. Now, however, technology has evolved but our expectations about what should remain private from this technology has not caught up leaving us in an awkward position.

If that’s the case, why dont we just address these problems? Well for one thing, there is not a consensus amongst individuals- in the same or different countries- on what level of privacy should be realized. Privacy is instead very contextual. As Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, points out, someone may be perfectly content sharing where they are on foursquare but are unwilling to divulge a medical condition that they might have. This poses a major problem to solving the privacy problem in Big Data.

Clearly the pros of big data are immense, so the next task is figuring out how a way where inadvertent costs, such as in the Target story, are avoided. One possible solution is the development of privacy safeguards that are part of the program. This will allow the benefits of big data to proceed while limiting the opportunity for unintended consequences. Boyd argues that more drastic steps have to be put in motion to solve this problem. She feels that “regulation is coming. You may not like it… but it is coming.”She feels that only by putting strict requirements on what is ethical and unethical regarding privacy, will big data be allow to flourish and reach its full potential.

Obviously, this is a very sensitive issue and I, Captain Dash, fully recognize. Furthermore, that these may not in fact be the answer needed to solve this problem. Therefore, we encourage you to comment on this post and give us your opinion on this issue and thoughts about is needed to remedy it. As a Kenyan proverb states, “Having a good discussion is like having riches,” and it is only with these riches that we will be able to solve the privacy issue in open data.

As always,

The Captain