How ‘Big Data’ is impacting business and personal privacy

People generate over 2.5 quintillion bytes every day

The world’s data Is doubling every 1.2 years

The numbers are staggering: according to one estimate, there are 4.5 billion cell phone users out of a world population of 7 billion people. Even more revolutionary for our global culture is the exploding number of smart phone users, already at 1.75 billion. Though some estimates are lower, this trend is both astounding and seemingly irreversible.

Compiling statistics for all digital devices, every day we send over 11 billion text messages, watch over 2.8 billion YouTube videos, and perform almost 5 billion Google searches. People generate over 2.5 quintillion bytes every day from consumer transactions, communication devices, online interaction, and streaming services. One estimate is that by 2020, the world’s total information will be over 35 trillion gigabytes (from approximately 4 trillion gigabytes in 2014).

Businesses know what you click/like

The Big Data analytics train has already left the station. This has many ramifications, including, for example, businesses mining consumer data to refine and improve online demographic targeting. Most of us have had the experience of searching through an online catalogue, not even buying anything, and within seconds visiting a completely unrelated site with ads from the same company for similar products.

If we’re going to have ads thrust at us, isn’t it preferable that we can relate to them? Most consumers, especially Millennials, would agree. Yet some websites have taken advantage of customers by, for example, increasing the price for a product or service that they’ve previously shown interest in.

Which raises some basic questions…

  • What are the underlying intentions of individual data collectors?
  • Who among the data keepers have exhibited patterns of exploitation or abuse?
  • Who can see what data, when, and why?
  • What are the benefits, if any, for the end user?
  • Can the user/consumer opt-out of various monitoring programs?
  • Who, if anyone, is policing the marketers to ensure that the consumer is protected?
  • What, if any, rules are there to protect us? How viable/enforceable are such rules?
  • When abuses emerge, is there a reliable system for improving the rules to counter them?
  • How long is data held and to whose benefit does that accrue?
  • At what point does protective surveillance endanger our rights as citizens?

Next , we’ll take a closer look at the present and emerging benefits vs. many (highly publicized) downsides of Big Data in the private and public sectors.

Compiling information about us are by no means limited to the NSA.

Our rapidly eroding internet privacy

So far, we discussed substantial privacy threats surrounding the emergence of online Big Data. Be aware that entities compiling information about us are by no means limited to the NSA. In fact, numerous under the radar ‘marketing companies’ can track our every transaction and location (the latter, if we use a smartphone) and then freely sell that information.

Unfortunately, whenever you provide your email address signing up for a new website account, submit a credit card number to make an online purchase, or share your phone number, you are compromising your security. Who, among us, bothers to read the Privacy Agreements linked with new accounts? Despite the emergence of the online reputation management industry, when information is digitized, it transfers into cyberspace where it’s virtually impossible to erase.

Undeniable benefits of big data

None of this can discount the present and future benefits of Big Data to give us quick, early warning snapshots of sudden changes in public health, food supply, and financial challenges. Tweets, coupled with data from cell phone carriers, for example, can localize such problems and help humanitarian organizations generate and deliver solutions faster.

Recommended TV documentary

If you watched the CNN’s May 4th broadcast of “Morgan Spurlock Inside Man” you got a sobering, accurate overview of how vulnerable even our most private information is – not only to hackers, but for anyone determined to gain access to your most private data. Among the program’s revelations: there are two websites – one providing clients with the first half of a person’s social security number and the other providing the remaining digits. By the way, for those of you with ‘On Demand,’ this program is now available for viewing.

While most parties interested in your private information simply want to better match you to online ads that are consistent with your lifestyle and psychological profile (yes, psychological profile…there are even logarithms for that), make no mistake about it, your information is available to virtually anyone willing to pay for it.

Some measures you can take to minimize potential damage:

  • Change your browser’s privacy settings for added security.
  • Change passwords frequently (a lot more frequently than you have to date).
  • If you have Firefox, download their free Lightbeam add-on to view the dozen or so under-the-radar organizations that may be tracking your every transaction.
  • Consider using a free, open-source anti-theft application like Prey that can be used both for computers and mobile phones to track your device’s location when you tell it to, so you won’t be tracked while the phone is in your possession.
  • Similarly, technologies such as Microsoft BitLocker allow stored files to be encrypted, i.e., only readable with a password/passphrase, PIN, or token) on your own local system/device. There are scams here, too, unfortunately, so make sure that this technology has been developed by a reputable security software company. Another encryption option is two-factor authentication, where a second corroboration code/password is required for access to your vital files.