With recent reports about the NSA spying on people, consumers have started to realize just how public their "private" lives really are. This has raised some justifiably serious concern in the marketplace today.
Here are five of the ways big data is causing big privacy concerns.
Health Care IndustryThe health care industry has been one of the biggest advocates of big data because of the tremendous advantages it has in protecting the health of patients. Advocates of big data use the information to identify people with a high risk of certain medical conditions early on, improve the quality of care patients receive, and lower the increasingly high costs of health care. (Read more in Can Big Data Save Health Care?)
Although there are tremendous benefits, new studies are revealing that big data may be riskier than initially thought.
According to MIT Technology Review editor in chief, Jason Pontin, as data becomes increasingly accessible and personal, it is important to be aware of any security and privacy implications tapping into big data may have. HIPAA rules already require healthcare professionals to tighten the security belt. However, HIPAA cannot protect against all healthcare-related concerns. For example, when people begin to search for answers related to their ailments in a non-HIPAA secured area, such as Google or other search engines, that data is not protected by HIPAA. In addition, more and more tech devices, such as wearable fitness monitors and smartphone applications, are not secure or private, raising concerns about who might see the data these devices collect.
There are many HIPAA-compliant ways to use big data to access patient health information. However, with an increasing number of other digital behaviors and devices being used for healthcare-related information and activities, much of the new data streaming into the marketplace and online is not secure.
Predictions and DiscriminationIn addition to predicting potential risk for future medical conditions, big data allows the prediction of quite a bit of other information about people. The information big data can predict is increasingly developing the potential to be used as a way of discriminating against people in a variety of demographics.
One example of big data discrimination came during a study done by Cambridge University. After looking at approximately 60,000 people’s "Likes" on Facebook, the data was processed to predict things such as gender, race, sexual orientation and behaviors. The results were shockingly accurate. When analyzing the data collected, the model could accurately differentiate gay men from straight men 88 percent of the time. The model also predicted race with 95 percent accuracy. Behaviors, such as how much alcohol people consumed, were also accurately predicted in this model.
Many people are concerned that employers, landlords, schools, government agencies and others may soon use data to profile people, creating the potential for discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or race, among other things. (Read more about privacy issues in Why There Are No Winners In the Privacy Debate.)
Highly Targeted SellingDiscrimination based on big data models has the potential to permeate all areas of the market. In some cases, it already has.
Using models similar to the one in the Cambridge University study, marketers use big data to target their selling and their products. Although big data is used by many marketers to place products and services in front of a highly targeted audience, when an audience is pigeonholed into one demographic based on their behaviors, there is potential for harm.
A good example of harmful marketing based on big data happened about 10 years ago when TiVo users tried to convince their digital recorders to stop recording shows aimed at a demographic group other than their own. In 2002, these mistaken algorithms caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. The printed headline said it all: "If TiVo Thinks You Are Gay, Here’s How to Set It Straight."
In spite of the potential for harm, marketers still use big data to target people on social media platforms, search engines and via email. Invading such a personal area by serving up advertisements based on friends, likes and email content has caused serious concern among consumers.
Increased SurveillanceIt isn't just online marketers that are involved in surveillance; every day, HD surveillance cameras capture 413 petabytes of information. This is expected to grow to 859 petabytes by 2017.
Surveillance cameras are now popping up everywhere. As algorithms continue to advance, the amount of data generated from these surveillance cameras and sensors will also increase. The storage on hard drives is also growing rapidly, making it easier to store all of this data.
Illegal UseWith the amount of big data people have access to these days, it's no wonder that some have taken this ease of gathering information a little too far. Illegal practices of tapping into data in new ways have caused quite a scare among those who value their privacy.
One recent case of a business taking big data collection a little too far was Urban Outfitters, which faced a privacy lawsuit in June 2013 when it was found that the store's cashiers were asking shoppers for zip codes when they paid with a credit card. This is not required, and it violated consumer protection and privacy laws in some states because the information can be used to look up shoppers' addresses.
Dealing With Big Data's ProblemsWith so much fear and speculation over the use of big data by firms, government agencies, employers and more, the best solution to earning trust in today’s market is to be honest. That's why businesses are increasingly enacting a full transparency policy on how they use data to target their customers. Consumers also have a greater interest in finding out how much of their life is really on display, and what people are doing with the information gathered.
As more consumers begin to learn just how much of their personal information is available, reforms in data collection practices will likely take place. Until then, it is in consumers' best interest to be mindful of data privacy so that they are aware of just how much of their personal information is being collected and how it is being used. They can then take the necessary precautions to protect themselves against companies that overstep their bounds.