Will Big Data destroy privacy ?

Over the last decade digitization of records and the rise of various social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter etc have made a huge amount of personal information available on the web. This surge in readily available information has prompted organizations to build complex Big Data applications that use this information to analyze and predict the behavioral patterns of consumers and hence provide them customized choices. However, these applications have raised a number of questions about the privacy rights of an individual making us think whether the benefits that we are reaping from these Big Data solutions are indeed worth compromising our private lives.

The opposition of Big Data is based on the premise that the intrusion of technology in our life will expose us to potential threats. The firms that currently focus on consumer trends and use that data to provide custom suggestions might end up discriminating their customers on these trends giving rise to “digital redlining.”[1] A ‘Big Data and Privacy Working Group’ formed by the Government of The United States of America is currently looking into this potential issue. Also, since companies now almost continuously track their consumers any leak or theft in their system will potentially expose all the information about the consumers . Also, with the amount of data currently being collected true anonymisation of any individual is getting more difficult and therefore in wrong hands the data could cause considerable damage.

However, we cannot disagree to the fact that the applications of Big Data have had a positive impact on the society. Big data has helped in detecting disease outbreaks and is currently being used to understand various complex medical problems. Apart from healthcare, Big Data analytics has led to development in almost every field whether it is prediction of consumer trends, improving education system, predicting weather phenomena or help build transportation and communication system for smarter cities. Progress in most of these fields would have been very hard, if not impossible, without the use of Big Data analytics. Therefore, we can say that the benefits of Big Data are far more than the price we are paying by sharing our information.
 Now, considering the advantages of Big Data it is safe to assume that over the next few years data analytics will help shape and evolve many industries. So, instead of writing off the technology we should focus on building a system that would limit the opportunities of exploitation of an individual’s privacy. One of such approach could be providing an option to the end user to opt in or opt out of any such data collection/analytics program for example “ Right to be forgotten” being enacted by European Data Protection Regulation. Also stricter rules should be in place to provide more transparency about the quantity as well as quality of data collected and to make sure that information collected for one purpose is not used anywhere else without prior approval. Checks should also be in place to secure the data from possible theft and leaks.
 In sum, we can say that there are a number of potential scenarios where Big Data could be used to transform the lives of millions of people. However, we cannot completely ignore the threats posed by the technology and hence the governments should come forward to create necessary regulations and systems to keep a check on the use of this information by the corporations. In the words of David Sarnoff ,

‘ We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.’[2]

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/05/01/findings-big-data-and-privacy-working-group-review
[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_conception_of_technology