With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility

Who will protect our personal information?

8 September 2014
Photo: Ron Newkirk

More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote “What’s past is prologue” in his play The Tempest. His point was that people’s pasts play a role in their future. Centuries later, we find that today’s data gatherers, data miners, analytics professionals, and data brokers have added a whole new level of meaning to that phrase. Today, people’s pasts can be analyzed by groups like these in an effort to draw conclusions about what the individual’s future actions will be.

By themselves, data points are raw and empirical. They do not tell you, for example, why an individual or group makes a decision or takes a particular action. However, as more data is gathered over time, patterns often emerge, and it becomes easier to anticipate people’s decisions and actions.

Whether we like it or not, our personal data is a by-product of our daily lives. Purchases at online and brick-and-mortar retail stores, photos of our license plates taken by surveillance cameras as we drive through intersections, messages posted on social networks—these actions and countless others can tell a story about our lives to those interested in knowing more about us.

While many of these observations occur in public settings or with implicit user approval, the terms, conditions, use, and policy around this data collection and analysis are often not explicitly clear or even comprehensible to the average person. Any story that may be told, however, remains our story; it is about the unique actions of an individual.


For some, the moment when privacy vanishes is the point when gathered data is analyzed and put to use. When this happens, individual choice flirts with the illusory. For example, based on acquired data, algorithms can already predict with 95 percent certainty that you are going to buy cookies this Sunday because you have done so every Sunday for the last six months. Therefore, when you make your market purchases later this week, you will receive a coupon for cookies.

Has your privacy been invaded? On the one hand, your personal habits are being observed, recorded, and analyzed as if you were little more than a variable in an experiment. On the other, you are receiving something that you may use to your benefit as a result of such observations and analysis.

Now, add a level of complexity to that example. Perhaps the data gathered by that store is sold to a data broker, which sells it to your health insurance company. Your insurer has years of data on your health already. Combine the two sets of data, and now it has a picture of your health and the steps you are taking—or not taking—to remain healthy. Based on that, an insurer could decide to raise your insurance rates. The true cost of those cookies suddenly becomes far more than merely caloric.

Again, though, has your privacy really been invaded? You have either tacitly or overtly provided your approval of these observations of your activities. So where should—or perhaps even could—a line be drawn? And who gets to draw that line? In whose hands should we place accountability for the responsible use of our personal data? These questions also highlight the importance of another component of the professional activities of technologists: the ethical dimension of our efforts to advance technology and the challenges we sometimes encounter.


According to the report “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” issued by U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration in May 2014, personal data management may be better off in the hands of academia. When individuals were asked what entities they trusted “not at all,” only 17 percent of respondents cited academia. Government agencies (34 percent), businesses (42 percent), law enforcement (53 percent), and the intelligence community (67 percent) had generated far greater levels of mistrust among those surveyed.

We have all seen the stories in the media about identify theft and data breaches of government and corporate security records. As measures to secure data evolve, so do the methods used to circumvent those protections. In turn, this spurs the need for better methods for securing data. Where this seemingly unending upward spiral leads is uncertain. What is certain is that what the future will look like depends on the actions we take today. Data is not merely data anymore; it is a commodity that can be bought and sold by corporations, governments, and individuals.

Questions need to be answered about where personal data originates, how it is collected, and whether it’s being used responsibly. In IEEE’s ongoing Big Data and Internet initiatives, we are delving deeply into a variety of issues centered on the future of the Internet, among them privacy, security, and the future of data.

IEEE has a community of technologists who can bring more certainty to our future; we can and must do so whenever and wherever possible. I am grateful to those within IEEE who are already pursuing answers to these questions, and I urge others in our global community to join in these efforts. Please share your insights with me at president@ieee.org.

RdMt_signature2014 J. Roberto Boisson de Marca
IEEE President and CEO
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