How to stop big data from becoming Big Brother

Getting consumers to pay attention.

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As big data and the requisite mega-analysis that goes along with it becomes more common, there is an increasing outcry from voices in our society questioning whether big data is becoming Big Brother.

I ran into a little of this myself this past weekend, attending a family reunion. My clan were their usual fun selves--put us all in a room together and we will eat, gossip, and spin yarns until the sun comes up--but a distant relative from a branch of the family that split off about four generations back also attended the get-together, seeking to build her genealogical knowledge of our branch.

This was all cool, but in order to facilitate her information gathering, she had produced fact books on what she had about the family so far, and what she had was a lot. And that set me back on my heels a bit.

My stance on personal data is somewhat casual, but I like to think of myself as being a bit more savvy about my online presence than most. So I was surprised to find the amount of data my distant relative had collected thus far--birth date, current residence, and pictures of me. And, more disturbingly of all, my kids, of whom I have tried to be hyper-vigilant.

In the grand scheme of things, I wasn't too upset, because ultimately this was all in my family, but I was amazed at how much information could be gleaned from sources like Facebook and Ancestry.com--the latter I don't belong to, but some of my family does. Between these sources and public records, I could easily see how this info could be put together.

And this, mind you, wasn't really in the realm of big data. But as more corporations and governments find ways of mining data to save money and track consumer behaviors, people are starting to take notice.

There is the now-legendary story of how Target's customer data analysis figured out that a teen girl was pregnant before her father even knew.

Or the recent initiative for the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey to go cash-less by either using in-car E-ZPass devices or having a bill sent to your home address based on a photo of your license plate. This would be more feasible for the Parkway since there are fewer out-of-state travelers on that particular road than the New Jersey Turnpike.

These certainly feel like Big Brother-ish activities, but care should be taken before whipping out the picket signs. The problem is that we as consumers have often signed away permission for corporations to use our personal information when we sign up for in-store credit cards or loyalty discount programs. Target is relentless, for instance, in pushing such sign-ups each and every time I check out.

The toll road data gathering is trickier. I am sure that the argument will be made that NJ residents don't have a right to drive on that road, but a privilege. (The old driver's license argument.) Plus, I am sure cost saving of not having to hire toll collectors will be a big PR play when the time comes. But while I can kind of follow along with the it's-a-right argument for general driving, I am not sure that means I want a state government knowing where I am on any given road at any given time.

For the record, I am part of an E-ZPass-like program here in Indiana, so I know full well that I have given up my right to privacy in this instance. But I can also respect those drivers who pay in cash just to avoid Indiana knowing where they're going.

The real solution here is going to have to include consumer education. People need to know just exactly what data will be gathered and why whenever they sign up for these programs. They need to understand that while they may be getting a discount at the retail outlet, online store, or even toll road, their participation comes at a cost of privacy.

If they are willing to pay the price, fine. But consumers must be aware so they can make a knowledgeable choice.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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