The Peril and Promise of Big Data

Mark Henricks reports from the SXSW panel "Big Data: Privacy Threat or Business Model?"
Freelance Writer, Self-employed
March 13, 2012

Mark Henricks is reporting live from SXSW in Austin.

Businesses have long pushed to know more about customers and prospective customers, but the quantity and quality of personal data now snared, as well as the power and sophistication of analytical tools, promises to turn big data into bigger-than-ever profits. That has privacy advocates concerned that not enough is being done to educate consumers about what is collected and how it's used and to protect them from abuse.

This is not a new concern, as was made plain by a set of privacy advocates gathered to discuss the issue at SXSW, on a panel called “Big Data: Privacy Threat or Business Model?” For instance, one early example of brows being knit over a technology used for personal data collection appeared in an 1890 law journal article co-authored by future Supreme Court justice Warren Brandeis.

Brandeis worried that the growing use of photography would erode the right to privacy and called for restrictions on its use. Today, such a concern seems quaint, and we've accommodated privacy concerns since without drastically curtailing photography, noted Berin Szoka, founder of TechFreedom, a think tank advocating market-based solutions.  The lesson, Szoka said, is that there is no need for government restrictions on big data, at least not yet. “You can't write rules in advance,” he said.

Rules are being proposed, however, most notably in a privacy bill of rights for online users released by the White House in February. That proposal would give consumers more control over what was being gathered by, among other means, giving them “do not track” controls while using the Internet.

That is fine with Jay Stanley, a senior policy advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union. Stanley noted that while Brandeis's photo phobia may have been overblown, other potentially invasive technologies have at first been accepted, only to later be tightly restricted. The Supreme Court at first okayed warrrantless wiretapping, for instance, then 30 years later began requiring warrrants. “You can't draw the conclusion with every new technology that we'll eventually get used to and learn to love it and live with it,” Stanley said.

Szoka's hands-off approach also encountered skepticism from Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. She said regulations let entrepreneurs design offerings that rely on the ability to gather data without worrying that what they were doing would be declared illegal. “The last thing you want to have happen is for someone to come to that determination once your product is out there,” Coney said.

Products that rely on data gathering are already out there, including the news media, said Declan Mccullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET/CBS Interactive. “Imagine if this bill of rights were translated into consumer products. How would this affect the news business?” he asked. If consumers had the right to control how information gathered by news media was used, for instance, he says, resulting regulations might be difficult to enforce.

Although panelists disagreed on details about how to protect consumers from big data, all agreed that potential for abuse existed. Mccullagh referenced a recent New York Times article describing how retailer Target assigned statisticians to find a way to tell if a customer was pregnant even if she didn't want them to know. Mccullagh said he had a three-week-old child and had personally felt the impact of big data knowing more about him than he liked. “The problem,” he said, “is you get coupons for baby clothes before the baby arrives.”

Photo credit: Mark Henricks