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Don’t be asleep at the wheel, Big Data privacy issues are critical for businesses and individuals to grasp

Many inputs to computers

By now, you’ve probably heard the term “Big Data”, and may even be getting sick of hearing about it. Whether you’re new to it or not, it’s going to be around for a long time, and it’s going to have a big impact on your privacy. If you aren’t aware of how your data is being used, here’s something you need to know about the privacy implications of Big Data.

Where Big Data started

Since Google started scanning every web page on the Internet about 2 decades ago, it accumulated so much data about what’s on the Web that it had to come up with a new way to analyze it. This new approach, now called Big Data, makes it easier to find hidden trends and even outliers (singling out anomalies) among vast amounts of data scattered on servers all around the world.

For example, Google was able to determine where flu outbreaks were about to occur simply by looking at what people were searching for online. This seems amazing. So, our Web search queries are constantly being analyzed. However, they also discovered that making broad inferences like these carries the risk of inaccurate conclusions being drawn. For example, when a national news story about the flu aired, these kinds of searches happened all over the place, which skewed their results. So, Google needed to refine its predictive models. But Big Data marches on…

Every company wants a Big Data strategy now

In any case, now that there’s a proven method for getting more value out of large amounts of data, it seems like every company wants to get into the game, looking for a Big Data strategy. They may already have large quantities of historical data, and they are probably looking for ways to gather more data from their customers in future.

Privacy, ethics and personal consequences aren’t exactly “top of mind” for Big Data companies or their users

In a scarier example, a marketing analyst at the Target retail store chain was asked to find a way to identify customers who were pregnant, based on their purchasing trends, so they could send them flyers. This led to an angry father of an 18 year old scolding a Target store manager about a flyer his daughter had received, which was full of ads for maternity and baby products. He apparently said that the retailer was encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. A week later, the father apologized to the store manager because he learned that his daughter actually was pregnant.

And this is just the beginning. In a great PBS documentary on Youtube called Big Data Revolution, that same marketing analyst from Target was quoted as saying, “We’re still playing with what we can figure out about your life”. Very scary!

This has big implications for how we choose to share our information or even use SMART devices in the coming days, months and years. And, if you’re in a business that’s thinking of getting into Big Data, it might be wise to use the Golden Rule when it comes to how you plan to use your customers’ personal information.

Privacy Tips

Individuals: In virtually everything you do, you should keep in the back of your mind how your actions, both online and in the real world, might be used in ways that concern you.

Employees: When you hear your management talk about Big Data strategy, or just “How can we get more value out of the data we collect?”, you should ask if privacy implications are being considered, from a social and legal point of view.

Managers: If you’re thinking of implementing a Big Data strategy, you should do some research on privacy laws, not just in your jurisdiction, but for all regions where people live who are contributing to your data. It’s usually the laws in the individual’s location that govern the privacy rules. You may need a full privacy impact assessment (PIA) to be done, to identify privacy risks to your customer base and your business model.


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