Big Data: is it an untameable monster?

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I was on the Paris Metro with a friend today and as she swiped in with her navigo smart card – the equivalent of the London Oyster card – I joked “Now they know who you are and where you are going” and she corrected me. In France they are legally obliged to keep personal […]

I was on the Paris Metro with a friend today and as she swiped in with her navigo smart card – the equivalent of the London Oyster card – I joked “Now they know who you are and where you are going” and she corrected me. In France they are legally obliged to keep personal data separate and that all they can track is a number.” That’s  an interestingly different view from UK and US where if you sign up to any loyalty or payment scheme you virtually lose all rights to privacy.
I also question how long such rules will really prevent “them” from finding you.  With big data the ability to triangulate is immense. She will have a digital footprint. When she exits the metro she will use a credit card or her mobile phone and big data “can” be used to correlate these with her metro number after enough trips.  That’s not to say they will, but they can. It was proved that they could identify 60% of people, including the Governor or Massachusetts, from 4 “anonymous” data sets by correlation, see http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2009/09/your-secrets-live-online-in-databases-of-ruin/
But here is the good part: whilst we are all fretting about the “big brother” version of big data there is another benign version out there that might just save us. It is the one that accesses all the open data, the one that looks across public domain data sets and allows us to see what “they” are doing.  This has a fantastic self-regulatory effect.  It is the social conscience of organisations that use big data analytics. Not only do they have to think what is legal (which with the best will in the world is sometimes forgotten) they have to think about what the public would say if they found out.  A good example is Google hoovering up unsecured wi-fi data when they were filming for Google Streetview. Whether it was legal or not the far bigger issue was the impact on the public perception of Google. And let us hope “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” 

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