Is Big Data a good thing or an invasion of privacy?

Big Data has unquestionably changed our lives. Everything from healthcare, education, politics, shopping and even online dating is being transformed due to expansions in the rapid transfer of huge amounts of information. Big Data monitors, extracts and stores very accurate and sometimes very personal information. Whilst many people see it as a good thing which could enrich our lives in some way and possibly make things such as transactions easier and faster; others see data mining as an invasion or a breach of Internet confidentiality.

Is Big Data a good thing or an invasion of privacy?

Big data is made up of structured and unstructured data. Structured data is the traditional forms including mainly text. However, it is the unstructured data which is now also being mined and stored by companies, governments and businesses in an attempt to enhance their services and products. This unstructured data includes photos, videos, and social media interactions.

In his futuristic, literary masterpiece, 1984, George Orwell describes living in a time of constant surveillance. He refers to the ‘thought police’ throughout his text and narrates a world where your thoughts and actions are monitored. OK, so it didn’t quite happen in the eighties, but nearly three decades later; we are now living in a world consumed with the possibilities of Big Data, predictive analytics and what some are referring to as ‘digital snooping.’

Each Internet user is creating a digital path. Nothing is ‘forgotten’ and literally everything is stored. Whether it is a random search, a photo you shared or maybe even a bargain you won on eBay. Whatever you have done online, no matter how small, is electronically recorded. Even a simple ‘like’ on Facebook is stored and categorized in the masses of unstructured data.

This data is used for things you may not even realise. For example, when you are shopping online, you may see suggestions and wonder how on earth this website knows what you would like or possibly buy. This is done on an algorithm based on your previous purchases. It runs a lot deeper than that and for many who are of the opinion: ‘If I have nothing to hide…’ then Big Data is a good thing, seen by many as the price you pay for the Internet.

The fact that big companies are collating this data and then building profiles to target the consumer has ethical issues involved also. They are building these ‘digital profiles’ which may sometimes be inaccurate, say for example if somebody else has used that person’s computer. Things like credit ratings can be affected by an ambiguous profile.

Talks are taking place in the coming months about the introduction of a new European data privacy law which will require that companies ask for ‘explicit prior consent’. However the bill will also allow European consumers new rights which include the transfer of people’s information including videos, photos and social media posts.

Big Data will fundamentally change a lot of things in the world for the better. The technology enables predictive information that will enable police forces and special force units to halt crime before it even happens. It helps to track criminals and stop certain crimes before they happen. For example, sexual predators and paedophiles will be monitored and a lot of online crime will be reduced through predictive analytics as data miners will be able to produce reports of certain searches via keywords and downloads and then track them through servers.

No matter how many positives there seems to be, there is still always the question of privacy. People are entitled to search privately for certain things. For example, if somebody has HIV and wants to keep it personal; if they are then suddenly targeted by companies for certain medicines and treatments, this will be seen as very intrusive.

Colleges and universities could use information collected as a way to screen students unfairly. For example, they may reject students who like to socialise more at weekends and favour students who participate in extra-curricular academic activities instead. Big Data collected through the unstructured data from sites such as Facebook will undoubtedly be an influence in many decisions made by institutions, employers and governments.

No matter how much controversy there is over Big Data, one thing is for sure; it is here to stay and will have an impact on everybody. Some people will embrace it and be happy that they will be targeted with content and by advertisers, whereas others may even turn away from the Internet as they see it as completely invasive.

What do you think? Is Big Data a good thing or an invasion of privacy?