Privacy in the age of Big Data
As I wrote in my previous blog, the web is fundamentally changing from a ‘browsing’ medium to a channel where we spend our time ‘transacting.’ With the explosion of social media apps, we have become more comfortable in revealing information about ourselves, without thinking that it could possibly lead to dire consequences. An extreme case being that of the New York congressman who failed to understand the concept behind Twitter, that it is a ‘public’ platform and sending any information (let alone questionable pictures) can find its way into the press and public at large.
Revealing information consciously and willingly is okay, but we have to start realizing that a lot of the digital tracks that we leave behind can be put together to form a dynamic digital profile of us. This is one of the issues of digital privacy in the age of ‘Big Data’. For instance, we all carry a cell phone and whether we know it or not, our location might get tracked via the signal our cell phone emits. Recently in Europe, one of the Parliamentarians was shocked to learn about how much and for how long, information on his location, cell logs and other caller related data was stored by the telecom operator.
Similarly some of the banks have admitted that they will be mining data related to the transactions we perform to understand our buying behavior. This data can then be sold to retailers or e-marketers to generate specific offers that may suit our lifestyle. It may be creepy to get an e-coupon out of the blue on your birthday (or anniversary) from a retailer that you would have shopped with some time back, but it could also have some nice benefits. On top of that, each one of us leaves behind digital tracks when we search or browse through different sites looking for something on the internet. If such data can be tagged to us, it can demonstrate our common interests.
If all the data on our locations, transactions and interests can be married together, it will create an interesting space-time digital profile for us which can be used to understand where we were, where we might possibly go, what interests us, what we may buy, etc. Given the troves of data involved, this may have been difficult to put together some years back. But with the advancement of Big Data techniques, it is quite possible today. With technologies like Hadoop and MapReduce and specific appliances like IBM Netezza, analysis of large amounts of data is within reach of many organizations. In addition, storage on the Cloud as well as digital data marketplaces may even make such digital profiles (or their elements) available for trading across organizations.
Does this mean that we have completely lost our ability to have privacy on the web? There is a comprehensive legislation in US and Europe covering different aspects of privacy. The problem seems to be that different states/countries have their own version and they may not be applicable across boundaries. With the web being a global medium, it becomes difficult to enforce many of the laws on an international basis.
If we add the complexities being brought in by Cloud Computing, the picture becomes even more muddled. In a public cloud, the location of the data is not guaranteed and hence the question of which law(s)/jurisdiction applies becomes quite questionable.
All hope is not lost. I do believe that fundamentally the laws will evolve on an international basis to provide a basic sense of security for us all. Privacy is still an issue that can be quite a hot button for a number of us. We just have to witness what is currently happening with Rupert Murdoch’s news media empire to understand when the basic tenets of privacy are violated (and revealed) how much anger can be generated in the public.
We should take basic precautions and keep in mind that whatever we do on the web can be tracked and used. But it should not prevent us from utilizing this very powerful medium that has come together over the last couple of decades.
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