Is Privacy Possible in the Era of Big Data?

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by James Kobielus

Can you have big data with airtight personal data privacy? In the age of ubiquitous over sharing and zealous big-data-driven hyper-analysis, digital privacy has become elusive and hard to attain.

With the proliferation of internet usage, and the reliance on internet search engines such as Google for everyday needs from looking up a location to online shopping, it is safe to say privacy concerns are rooted deep in the heart of the online experience, which thrives on freewheeling give-and-take. We should put privacy considerations at the core of our social business initiatives before customers demand it or the courts, regulatory bodies, and legislators decide to force our hands.

That is why businesses should embrace the concept of “privacy by design” – a systematic approach that takes privacy into account from the start – instead of trying to add protection after the fact. My IBM colleague Jeff Jonas authored a paper to help organizations understand how to incorporate privacy technologies from the ground-up, while preserving functionality.

Balancing the potential of modern data technology with the privacy and security of employees, clients, customers, and citizens in general, is something organizations must take very seriously. And privacy-protection best practices have taken hold in businesses everywhere. But here’s the rub. As a business IT professional, even if you could harmonize  disparate privacy regulations the world over and abide by every one to the nth degree, it can prove difficult to figure out how to legitimately access personal data to solve problems. You still have to be careful about how you conduct data sourcing, content aggregation, entity resolution, de-identification, segmentation analysis, and target marketing efforts.

Additionally, under any regulatory system, there is no law stopping IT professionals from using legitimate analytic tools and techniques to make smarter inferences about peoples’ behaviors, propensities, proclivities, and the like. For instance, a CMO being able to turn 12 terabytes of tweets created each day into a better understanding of his or her customers.

And while online entities are becoming more transparent in terms of explaining to their users what, if anything, is being tracked and why, businesses simply need to become smarter about how the data is used to provide a personalized experience.  For example, IBM is collaborating with the Future of Privacy Forum and other firms to establish a consumer trust seal to reassure consumers that their smart grid information is being accessed and used appropriately.

While big data and personal information have become an essential resource for solving some of society’s most pressing problems, it is imperative organizations protect and respect personal privacy when analyzing data to uncover insights.

So, then, is personal privacy a lost cause in the age of big data? Not necessarily. Despite increased privacy concerns that may be raised in regards to the use of analytics, there are many benefits that this increased visibility into data offers, and they far outweigh the infringement on privacy – from increased public safety to better traffic systems, and reduced fraud, etc. Every day, data is being used to make the world smarter, safer, more efficient and more customized. So while data privacy is a major concern, we as a community should grow to better understand the balanced risks and rewards of data analysis.


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