Article
Written by Mark Beekman
Posted on 09/10/2015

Big data is not inconsistent with privacy

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The advent of big data is definitely placing existing securities and familiar structures under pressure. Opponents of big data refer to the dangers of an ‘all-encompassing system that threatens our privacy’. Nevertheless, knee-jerk opposition makes no sense. In fact, by outlining proper playing rules with all of the stakeholders involved, big data becomes a big win. 

Change always sparks a reaction. People tend not to like seeing their old structures broken up and it is no different with big data. Today, many tens of billions of data items are available online. Anyone who can identify directional links and trends from what is usually unstructured data immediately opens the door to a whole new world. It’s a world that when analysed can give you an advantage over someone who does not have the same access to this data. This in turn unlocks all sorts of reactions – mainly of uncertainty.

We have certainly seen this kind of response before. Just think of the sudden rise of the printing press. At a certain moment in time, a few whizzkids succeeded in finding an industrial way of putting the intellectual baggage of various centuries into book form. At the time, the amazing speed with which printing suddenly became possible presented a massive challenge to the hardworking monks who were often bent over their parchments for many months, transcribing ancient Greek and Roman wisdom by hand. Without warning, these upstart industrial printers undermined centuries of serene, unthreatened certainties. 

The developments now taking shape around big data are heading in the same direction. Opponents of big data warn against the brutality of an all-encompassing system.  Fundamentally, there is a fear that the big data ‘machine’ will gather up hordes of unprotected personal data so that it can be processed in an unjustified manner into conclusions over which the individual no longer has control. This fear often morphs into opposition and strident calls for legislation that prohibits the storage and processing of big data.

Knee-jerk opposition makes no sense

But whether this is the right way of tackling the matter is very much the question. Printing, along with the Internet, have undoubtedly enriched our lives. Books and websites have become an integral part of our social lives. We have learnt to deal with them and they have enriched our existence. So, instead of simply opposing developments against which we should obviously have no objection, we would do better to examine how we can best come to terms with these new things. Rather than obstinately blocking access to big data, it would make far more sense to try out the effectiveness of the new systems. Anyone who succeeds in monitoring the impact of big data properly and finding the right balance between all of the new elements it encompasses will soon be able to explore the advantages of the changes made.

It has to be said that the new world we are entering with datamining in a challenging one. Today, computers collate billions of items of data that analysts first filter and then check for accuracy and reliability before they are all connected to extract links and trends. The ranking, analysis and interpretation of data provide the impetus to a fundamental change through which the original data provider finally becomes a business intelligence provider. The insight gained into the data analysed is so intelligent that it provides an economic added value. In the end, based on repetitive movements, we can extrapolate actual patterns that can even predict the future. As a result, the step to a future annual financial statement of a company that is being monitored is not far away.

Dialogue between all stakeholders  

In the meantime, the defenders of the privacy laws continue to put the brakes on big data. They assume that the data gathered is likely to be misused. Certainly when hospitals pass on patient data without any checks to insurance companies, the individual can suffer actual harm as a result. Anyone who falls into a certain category of data (i.e. they are suffering from a particular illness or disease) can then inevitably expect to see an increase in their insurance premiums. This fear is legitimate and should be expressed for what it is. The social and political climate that we know today may be turned on its head tomorrow, in which case the misuse of unlimited datamining is not impossible.

It’s all about involving the various parties in the process and engaging in dialogue to find the right balance that is acceptable to all of the stakeholders. We need to embrace the processes of change, rather than stand in their way. And we need to deal with change with the necessary healthy understanding. Instead of going overboard about the benefits of technological progress, we would do better to have a fundamental discussion about the terms under which we can accept the analysis results from big data.  

It is also important to keep a close eye on ‘justified interests’. We talk about a justified interest when the interests of the party that wants the data to be processed is greater than the interest of the person to whom the data belongs for the data not to be processed. If this condition is met, data can be gathered to highlight certain developments. If the data can be processed in such a way that it does no harm to the individual, then the big data development process should not be held back unjustifiably.

Big data is not at all scary. Technology and innovation have become tools for making our lives easier. It’s all about making the best possible of big data and, as a sector, giving thought from the outset to how we can prevent any misuse and excesses. In this regard, data protection and data privacy are very important. As a result, the IT/data sector needs to put rules and security in place. And in the end, when that happens, the sector will even be able to extract growth opportunities from it.

Finally, this: when the first cars came on to the roads, traffic rules had to be outlined at the same time. A car is a particularly convenient way of getting around. For everyone. Only the improper use of that car can result in life-threatening situations. The same thing applies to (big) data.