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Big Data, Big Opportunities

· June 13, 2012

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In my last post on Do Not Track I pointed briefly to an article that ran recently in the New York Times about “Big Data” and some of the ways in which people are starting to employ these new databases and pieces of software. The article is so interesting that it deserves to be highlighted on its own, however. Some of the examples listed in the article are textbook cases of the disruptive potential of big data and the importance of being very careful about regulating in the area of privacy.

(Not 100% clear on what “big data” is? Check out this great infographic from HP-owned Autonomy via Venture Beat that can help provide some insight.)

The companies listed in the article all share a fundamental similarity, which is that none would exist if not for today’s explosion of innovation in the data storage and analysis marketplace. The results in most cases have been to disrupt existing business models and to create entirely new ones. Amazon.com took its vast stores of data about what people viewed and bought on its site and completely revolutionized how we learn about new content we might enjoy. That’s just one example of how big data changes businesses and our everyday lives.

In this vein, another recent publication worth checking out is a paper by Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky called “Privacy in the Age of Big Data: A Time for Big Decisions.” Omer and Jules examine the same trends as the New York Times article, highlighting the value of big data. Access to all this information, they say, “driv[es] innovation, productivity, efficiency, and growth.”

But the gathering of this information raises real questions of privacy, they recognize. The most important point that the paper makes, I believe, is that it is fundamentally important to balance privacy protection with the type of harm that could occur and the type of information being collected. They question the false dichotomy of opt-in versus opt-out, and state that “a coherent framework would be based on a risk matrix, taking into account the value of different uses of data against the potential risks to individual autonomy and privacy.”

This idea is important and altogether too rarely emphasized: Privacy is important, yes, but so is the general social good that arises from data analysis and the myriad industries just beginning to take shape under the “big data” rubric. It would be a mistake, as these pieces point out, to completely ruin this disruptive new industry by striking the wrong balance between data and privacy.

Privacy

Trust in the integrity and security of the Internet and associated products and services is essential to its success as a platform for digital communication and commerce. For this reason we’re committed to upholding and advocating for policymaking that empowers consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace while not impeding new business models.