Big data is a big deal, illuminating and predicting societal and economic trends — but its all-consuming, comprehensive nature may obliterate privacy as it is understood today.
With companies competing to suck in and analyze data at an astonishing pace, the burgeoning world of data collection builds insights into Internet-user behavior, but this deep analysis mines even the most personal particulars of user actions.
Beyond sussing out larger societal and economic patterns, big data can assemble information into an intimate picture of the people it relies on for raw data.
Big data is how Target’s Guest Relations Analytics accidentally revealed a teenaged girl was pregnant to her father. The store’s data collectors used information about her purchasing habits to predict her pregnancy, even though she did not explicitly reveal the information to Target (or to her father), and sent her a pamphlet about upcoming parenthood that shocked her parents.
Facebook and Google’s Relationships to Big Data
Facebook’s Data Team analyzes information voluntarily supplied on the website, and the depth and breadth of its predictive power point to the enormous potential this data collection holds for researchers, along with advertisers and governmental organizations.
The team identified people likely to exit and enter relationships based on their noted song preferences, and uses user data to extrapolate wider patterns of societal behavior. In one instance, the data team tried out an algorithm to chart “gross national happiness” around the world, and the results measured up against real-world events.
Governments and Big Data
Governments around the globe take varied approaches to personal data. The U.S. government is taking steps to harness the personal data collected on social media sites to monitor potentially criminal situations and beef up homeland security.
The State Department recently called on software developers to create programs that make it easier to analyze data collected from places like Google, Facebook and Twitter for government use, pointing to an acute interest in the way these companies accumulate and wield personal data.
And the State Department’s not the only U.S. institution intrigued by the benefits of personal data — the FBI wants to wiretap social media sites by altering their code. With hubbub still swirling around U.S. involvement with the creation of the Stuxnet and Flame viruses, it is clearer the government has a vested interest in cyber-espionage, and analyzing personal data will help further those interests.
But in the march towards increased security for citizens, these agencies could run afoul of protecting their privacy, so this trend may be more troublesome than comforting for people concerned about their right to privacy.
How Big Data’s Big Players Approach Personal Data
Not all data is created equal, with some big data players avoiding the personal data companies like Google and Facebook gobble. Some data companies, like Factual, shy away from analyzing personal data. Factual’s PR representative Kathryn Huff explained the distinction, noting “the company focuses on location and points of interest type data.”
Unlike Factual, companies like Spokeo trade in personal data, compiling reports on consumer behavior going into shocking detail. For instance, a dossier on an individual consumer might feature pictures of their home and hobbies. This type of large-scale data collection can negatively impact people in surprising ways, potentially lowering credit scores while violating privacy.
The FTC lobbed a fine at Spokeo for its dubious data collection practices, but the company continues to collect information.
How Do Big Data collectors Deal with COPPA?
COPPA, otherwise known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, blocks corporations from gathering data online from children under 13, but it does not apply to governments and non-profits, so children remain open to data collection from a myriad of sources, including the U.S. government.
Companies like Facebook and Collective Intellect are banned from collecting data, but they are not very effective in staying within the limits of this ban. Facebook bars people younger than 13 from creating an account, technically, but in reality droves of children use the website. And since the social media juggernaut wants to let these children make accounts, it may have to adjust the way it harvests their data.
These businesses need to find a way to monetize personal data, otherwise their troves of information will do nothing to improve their profits. What does this mean for the average user and their privacy?
First, it would be naive to think targeted ads aren’t already happening, and not to expect continued increases. These sites will turn to their valuable data to boost revenue if need be, and with advertisers clamoring for targeted ads, the mining of personal to pinpoint consumer desires is quickly becoming de rigueur.
Moreover, governments will continue to comb through and analyze personal data for their own ends, and this is highly unlikely to slow down or stop, despite efforts from social media sites like Twitter to protect their users’ data and the free and open communication it tries to engender.
Bottom line: big data, particularly personal data analysis, is eroding privacy. Without significant policy changes from governments and major sites like Google and Facebook, this is the way the Internet, and society at large, is headed.