Privacy and Big Data – What Goes Around Comes Around

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In this feature, John Kirkley looks at how the threat of Big Data turning into Big Brother has its roots in Cold War.

The year was 1968 and it was the height of the Cold War. Wanting to know more about how a totalitarian regime might exercise rigid control over its population, the U.S. government asked the RAND corporation, a think tank based in Southern California, to look into the matter.

A bright, young RAND researcher named Paul Armer considered the issue and presented his findings to the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure in the form of a seminal document titled “Privacy Aspects of the Cashless and Checkless Society.”

Cost and convenience will ultimately force us to use some form of interconnected electronic payment and bookkeeping network for most transactions, instead of checks and currency,” commented Armer. The danger of personal surveillance – electronic snooping – depends largely on the completeness and centralization of records and the speed of transmission. Airline reservation systems (which can include hotels, car rentals, etc.) are a present example of large amounts of current personal information instantly available. There is little sanctuary for economic privacy in a system where any sizable cash transaction is conspicuous. Access to the files must be limited to a few persons who can be trusted.”

Now it’s 45 years later and as Yogi Berra once remarked, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The move to Big Data is sparking new concerns about privacy, and Orwell’s 1984 and the specter of Big Brother are being raised in cautionary postings all over the Internet.

Just one example: Steve Lohr, writing in last week’s New York Times, recalls how, in the 1960s, mainframes were a “significant technological challenge to common notions of privacy.” He describes various attempts to deal with contemporary issues around privacy generated by the rapid ascendancy of Big Data and increasingly sophisticated analytics with the obligatory nod to Orwell.

Featured in the article is Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist and director of the Human Dynamics Lab at M.I.T. He heads up a group at the M.I.T. Media Lab that is taking specific actions to address privacy concerns – including developing specific tools for handling personal data.

He (Pentland) espouses what he calls ‘a new deal on data’ with three basic tenets: you have the right to possess your data, to control how it is used, and to destroy or distribute it as you see fit,” writes Lohr. “Personal data, Dr. Pentland says, is like modern money — digital packets that move around the planet, traveling rapidly but needing to be controlled. ‘You give it to a bank, but there’s only so many things the bank can do with it,’ he says.

“His M.I.T. group is developing tools for controlling, storing and auditing flows of personal data. Its data store is an open-source version, called openPDS. In theory, this kind of technology would undermine the role of data brokers and, perhaps, mitigate privacy risks … Dr. Pentland’s group is also collaborating with law experts, like Scott L. David of the University of Washington, to develop innovative contract rules for handling and exchanging data that insures privacy and security and minimizes risk.”

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