What big data has brought to the privacy discussion

By SAS Insights Staff

When Facebook had an 18-minute outage, it cost them about $400,000 (or $22,000 per minute). Granted, this is just a drop in the bucket for Facebook, but if you include the revenue lost by all the businesses using Facebook Ads, that number gets a whole lot bigger – for just 18 minutes. There’s no question that advertising is big money, but behavioral online advertising is even bigger money – and companies like Facebook and Google get that.  

Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to advertising and privacy, advertisers really don’t care about what we do or where we go. They only care about one thing: Getting us to buy what they’re selling. And if that’s true, you can’t help but ask, “What’s the harm?” After all, who doesn’t appreciate a relevant-to-you ad when you’re surfing for a certain item online or a coupon delivered to your mobile device when you’re near one of your favorite stores?

It seems like a benign trade-off: a little bit of my personal information in exchange for some helpful, free service that could save me some money. But here’s the rub: the information we freely share is not just used by these advertisers selling stuff to us. It’s also used by the Facebooks and Googles of the world, plus a whole lot of other data players for a myriad of reasons – none of which we really have any control over.

Privacy challenges in a big data world

The privacy (and related security) discussion is not new – to consumers, citizens, companies or government agencies. What we’re seeing, though, is that this discussion is shifting from IT, development and legal to the boardroom and our customers – not to mention our own dinner table.

Big data is a key contributor to this shift. We are all generating data at a phenomenal rate – a rate that currently exceeds our ability to properly capture, process, store and analyze this data for any meaningful insight in a timely manner.

Make no mistake: We’re making significant progress with big data technologies, but we can’t depend on technology alone to address the challenges big data has brought to the privacy table. Let’s briefly consider a few of these challenges:

  • Right to privacy. Who owns our personal data and what are we or “they” entitled to do with it? What assumptions can we make about personal data we now share online?
  • The internet age. We live our lives in a public and digital square where any person, company, or agency around the world can watch us, whether we want them to or not.
  • Security. Between data breaches and aggressive hackers, will our data ever really be secure? As data continues to grow, so do the opportunities for data breaches.
  • Safety. Face it, we live in a dangerous world. How do we balance safety with privacy and security at the data level?
  • Trust. Trust is at the heart of the privacy issue and is the glue that is going to keep the data ecosystem together.
  • Ethics. Technology has leapfrogged ethics, bringing us to the age-old question of what we can do versus what we should do. A good example is the tricky relationship between GDPR and artificial intelligence.
  • Context. What is contextually important to you may not be important to me. Let me give you an example: Google Maps. We might both believe it makes our lives easier, but when the street views of our homes show up, my kids show up in the picture and I tell all my Facebook friends – and you become outraged because your dog was in the shot.
  • No borders. Data, in and of itself, has no country, respects no law, and travels freely across borders. In the digital age, there are no geographical borders. And yet, most governments have attempted to put restrictions on how their citizens’ data is used – consider, for example, the General Data Protection Regulation.
  • Transparency. If important decisions are being made about us based on an algorithm and big data, we have a right to know how the algorithm works and what data is being used. It’s outrageous that many of the ways big data is being used is shrouded in secrecy.
  • Global differences. The internet is a big place, and treating privacy as a US issue ignores the global reach of technology companies, and the long arm of government agencies. When we hear about foreign issues, we treat them like they're strange and far away, ignoring the fact that those issues can very quickly come home to roost.

As you can see, the big data privacy discussion is not just about behavioral advertising, as some would have you believe. Rather, it’s a much-needed, complex discussion about how we can balance privacy, security and safety in an increasingly transparent and dangerous world. Have that discussion before it’s too late. 

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