Big Data – So Glad I’m not Alone

How many businesses are based on the collection of user data? Could be all of them, soon.

Having done just enough reading about the Internet of Things to be dangerous, I’ve surmised the time is coming when we’ll have the capacity to collect and store a ridiculous amount of information, perhaps down to a level of minutiae (does that word rhyme with nausea?) whereby we could track each step the family pet takes, every day, as it wanders around the house. I have to admit, I’m curious what my cats do while I’m not home, but suspect that information would interest me for 0.8 minutes. And I’d pay less than what a cup of coffee costs to know.

If I won’t pay, maybe a maker of veterinary products will. And discover a cause to displaced aggression, an increasingly common syndrome whereby cats get all snarly because they can see another cat outside their home, making them uber-aggressive to anything inside their home. Perhaps a new line of pet-food would counteract the cause. Depending on what the cause is, maybe the manufacture of air-fresheners, refiners of natural gas or growers of gourds should get involved.

It may seem I’m being silly but that is the potential of big data. Everything may be connected to everything else in previously unsuspected ways. A world where every object (including people) sends frequent signals about its position, temperature, or movement isn’t so far away. And while that may seems like an innocuous set of variables, much can be determined. Knowing where a person is at all times says a lot about their habits and interests. Go to the corner store each night? – there’s some kind of habit brewing – smokes, junk food, lottery or maybe just an attraction to the clerk. Already sounds like too much person information.

Add a little more, like your purchasing habits, co-location with other objects (people) provides much information about your relationships. A speedometer, GPS and accelerometer is enough to reveal your driving habits – do you break quickly or a lot? Knowing your speed and where you are tells if you are a habitual speeder. Aggressive driving can be spotted by proximity to other vehicles.

So there’s another rub. Things we are buying now come with embedded information gathers. Never mind the electronic device (mobile phone/tablet) we use to communicate that snarfs down a mountain of information about us – there are others, such as cars. Appliances will soon want to be in constant contact with retailers (or maybe the other way around) so the fridge will refill itself with all your favourite foods (at your expense). The washer and dryer will order refills of detergent and fabric softener if you don’t stop them.

The electric utility monitors my consumption of power by the minute but also may soon link that information to all the appliances in my house to suggest which are being left on too long or could otherwise be used more wisely. That’s information I can use to decrease my power bill, or may be the information will be used in another way.

Oops.The pessimist woke up.

What about personal privacy and associated rights that various businesses may want to stick their nose into? Like say, Insurance. There’s a data loving industry. Wouldn’t my home insurance provider like to know if I was in the habit of leaving electrical appliances unattended, risking a fire. Or maybe they’d be more interested to know there was no power drawn from a home security system even though I ensured them I installed one.

And this is just one example that sprung to mind. There’s cars and driving habits. Food and eating habits. How hot I heat my home compared to everyone else in the neighbourhood. How many fruits and vegetables my family buys each week and how many end up in the compose bin. The household consumption of entertainment – bringing a blush to everyone’s cheeks. You get the idea. Personal privacy is at stake.

Many businesses assure us that our information will not be used except to ‘provide us with service’ – that sounds like a can of worms.

When I saw the title ‘The Need to Embed Big Privacy in a World of Big Data – by Design’ a talk by Ann Cavoukian, I was thrilled because it seemed to echo my sentiments exactly. Dr. Cavoukian is the former privacy commissioner for Ontario who has created a system called Privacy by Design to protect privacy (all kinds, individual, corporate, organizational).

I went to the talk. I liked what I heard. The key principles. Privacy should be:

  • Proactive
  • By default
  • Embedded into design
  • Positive sum – not a trade off with security, we get privacy and security
  • Full life cycle protection
  • Visible and transparent
  • Respect for user choice – no service denial because you decline to provide information

The last one won me over completely. Too many online sites are binary (yes, the irony is intentional). If you don’t agree to provide information required, you can’t get in. After all, it’s a web interface and not capable of understanding explanations.

Hence my love of the privacy by default idea. If I don’t want to provide my birthdate, I can still get an account. This is where privacy by design is important. Yes, it you need to ensure users are above a certain age. Currently, you build the user account system to verify this by asking for their date of birth, then of course they are rejected if you refuse to provide that information. But if you did it differently from the beginning, asking people to warrant they were of age and sending an email to confirm, you might design a system that protected the provider and the consumer equally. Squeee.

One of the suggestions was that we should be routinely reminded that data was being collected. I’d love it if Facebook popped a window to tell me I’d watched 65 cat videos in a month and they were escalating my profile to ‘cat lady’. Or Twitter said I was following enough grunge-rock bands to qualify as a metal-head groupie. It might be fun.

I applaud the Privacy by Design initiative, to boldly embrace privacy and see how easy it is to incorporate it if it’s done from the beginning. I can see it as a competitive advantage, providing customers the option of how much of their data is used and what kind of information they get back from sharing. Sigh. Oh for the day when we’re secure in what we communicate freely, without fear of our messages being used against us.

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