In the October 20, 2014, issue of The Wall Street Journal, an article by Elizabeth Dwoskin highlighted the many positive aspects of the use of “big data” to crunch through information and make useful sense of the millions of data points we create every day.
The level of detail that can be ascertained from the data points would shock most consumers. For example, it’s possible to learn how many consumers turn the lights off after midnight. To be clear, the regulators in states do not have access to – or, quite frankly, much use for – this granular data. It does however raise certain privacy and security concerns that should be considered and decisions made before technology outpaces the law or the policy makers (if it hasn’t already done so). What is this “semi-personal data”? How is it collected? What is it used for? And, by whom?
The benefits of advanced data collection technology are quite simply amazing. From pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow, to consumer spending patters, to energy efficiency, to pollution control and more, the use of big data can help make people live and work smarter, and typically at a lower cost. On the flip side, while individual data points may not reveal “too much” information, “big data” collection that consumes broadly, then dissects, analyzes and reports out the day-to-day happenings in people’s lives has the ability to reveal much more than the average consumer is likely comfortable sharing. The intersection of “public” and “private” is not as clear as it may have been in the 20th century.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO LEARN HOW MANY CONSUMERS TURN THEIR LIGHTS OFF AFTER MIDNIGHT
One difficult question is that of the expectation of privacy. Where can it reasonably be expected to exist (like your home!)? When is it voluntarily waived (e.g. by being in the public, accessing public resources or free wi-fi hotspots)? Where these questions are untested or unknown should give parties on all sides of the discussion pause. Furthermore, does the use of “big data” in a generic sense to demonstrate a possible crime being committed equate to a violation of constitutional rights? For example, “big data” collection reveals that lights are on in a home even when no one is there (did they forget to turn them off?), more water is used than in a comparable residence (what’s the “right” amount of water?), and the amount of trash hauled away is not consistent with the neighbors (how much trash is the “correct” amount?), which could mean an illegal pot farm is being operated there. Does the “evidence” collected by the “big data” analysis constitute probable cause? Was there an illegal search because probable cause exists only as a result of use of semi-private data gathered from “big data”?
Additionally, the use of such data collection points opens up thousands, if not millions, of possible entry points for hackers and other bad actors to try and gain access to semi-public data. Each collection point is a possible point of entry thereby increasing the vulnerability of people’s semi-personal information. Is there a cost-benefit proposition to the many tangible and intangible benefits of “big data” collection when compared against the infringements on a person’s right to be left alone?
There are no easy answers. In the mean time, consumers and businesses alike must be vigilant in the collection, use, analysis and deployment of “big data” collection points and “big data” solutions to ensure that the proper balance between what is possible and what is permitted is maintained.