Big data is a much hyped phenomenon, and its benefits continue to grow. But at what cost? Here, Elizabeth Rudd explores some of the concerns for individuals.
Normal, routine activities from daily life generate large amounts of data. Who owns this data, has access to it, and what they can do with it is largely unregulated and undisclosed. Little-by-little more and more aspects of daily life are recorded and stored meaning very little of what you do, where you go, and who you see is not being watched and recorded.
What is changing?
- Driving – Newer sources of data include motor vehicles where “black box” recorder software, similar to that of airplanes, records data about driving patterns and behaviour including where and how fast you drive, if seat belts are worn and numerous other data points. All data which can be used by insurance companies to personalise rates, deny claims and share with the police in case of an accident or criminal proceedings. In addition there are third parties which record the license plates of cars at certain locations and provide it to large private databases creating a record of your car and its movements. Many motor vehicle operators do not realise there is no privacy around their movements.
- Improvements in facial recognition software means accessing public transportation, going to a hospital or public building, creates another data trail as not only is the image recorded but it can be used to personally identify people and assess behaviour for suspicious or criminal activity. See an advertisement in a public place, the viewer might be recorded to gauge the emotional reaction and the ad’s effectiveness.
- When shopping online, where the user accesses the internet from, where they live and the history of previous purchases can influence the pricing the user receives. Pricing shown to one user might be totally different from another. Use email, perform a search on the internet, post a picture on a site for friends and family to see and a whole set of data is generated and stored.
- Health issues are increasingly monitored and recorded electronically creating large amounts of data about an individual’s health in the process.
- Mobile phone users create vast amounts of data, not only about who they talk to, but also where they go, and who they know.
Collecting data about every aspect of daily life has become easier and cheaper but the rules and laws governing the use this data lags behind legal and social expectations. Today’s legal frameworks, consumer and privacy protection laws were written before much of today’s technology existed. Technology is removing the need to provide consent, for law enforcement to obtain warrants, and for individuals to be informed that information is collected or accessed about their personal activities. Without controls around collection, ownership, and use of data, it leaves open the possibility of abuse, discrimination and criminal activity.
Personal information is highly sought after by many companies to market additional products and services, tailor their own product offerings and in some cases to deny you service. Research by Ovum in late 2012 of European and American online consumers reveals 75% of people realise their data is collected and almost half realise their data will be sold to others to generate revenue. But 68% indicate if there was a way to prevent their online activities from being tracked they would do so.
In Europe legislation is being discussed to allow users to control if data about their online activities is collected. It would require online sites to disclose what data is collected, what it is used for and who has access to it. In addition it may require the ability for sites to correct and/or delete data about users at their request.
Governments are heavily involved in the collection, monitoring and storing of personal communications. The US government has announced plans to build the world’s largest data centre to monitor the communications of US citizens. The UK government has similar plans. These government monitoring programmes are justified in the name of national security or terrorism, but are well beyond the scope of any currently legal monitoring of citizens private communications without legal justification.
Awareness is growing about consumer information, but there is a growing volume of personal information collected, stored and analysed with no customer relationship in place. In the future as individuals realise just how much personal information is collected, accessible and used for revenue or surveillance purposes by private and government organisations a backlash is likely. The next frontier in big data may very well be the control of data about you.
By Elizabeth Rudd