Every click, like, purchase and search is potentially recorded, analyzed and stored. What impact does this have on our privacy?

What is Big Data? 

“Big Data” is an umbrella phrase used to mean a massive volume of both structured and unstructured data that is so large, it is difficult to process using traditional database and software techniques.

Big Data has the potential to improve operations and make faster, more intelligent decisions. It’s not just companies that are collecting and analyzing these massive stores of data.

  • The healthcare industry is using it to better research cures and treatment options.
  • City planners are using it to build smarter cities that waste less.
  • Environmental organizations are using it to track the progression of climate change.

This data, once captured, formatted, manipulated, stored, and analyzed can help a company or organization gain useful insight to predict behavior, increase revenues, obtain or retain customers and recognize emerging patterns, among others.

The Dark Side of Big Data

Such a massive amount of information at someone else’s hands can be concerning. Privacy concerns are pertinent to users, who willingly give away identifying information such as names and email addresses, and less identifying information such as browsing data and online searches.

Data is being sold everyday to a wide range of buyers across a multitude of industries. Who might be interested in your data? 

Advertisers, who want this data to better target you based on the sites you visit, searches you make, and items you buy;

Banks, who want to know, for example, if your Facebook updates will predict your creditworthiness;

Recruiters, who want to find the perfect candidate and look at your online activity;

Current employers, who want to track your performance and predict if you’ll be a good employee;

Governments, who want to know what activities you are involved in on- and off-line to assure national security.

Critics fear too much data-crunching could actually increase financial exclusion. The riskiest customers, and those offline, might be priced out. The more the industry relies on complex—and proprietary—algorithms, feeding machines that keep learning, the harder it will be for customers, and regulators, to untangle why they were rejected.

The Economist

Overall, Big Data can help governments run more efficiently, save money, find identify fraud, detect crime patterns and many other uses. Big data analysis, at its core, is carried out with the intention of benefiting citizens and improving user experience. However, there is always room for misuse.

Governments have a wealth of information about their citizens that makes many uncomfortable. Companies can sell your data for profit, create profiles about you and predict how you will act online. And even if your data isn’t being sold, security breaches are a growing problem in the digital age. Companies, governments and organizations have a duty to take care of the data they collect. They must ensure that it stored securely on their servers, and is safe from prying eyes.

What to do about it?

With data analysis becoming increasingly sophisticated, it is certain that Big Data isn’t going anywhere. Companies and others will continue to find new uses for this data, with both positive and negative impacts for users.

Protecting your privacy starts with awareness and knowing what happens with the data you create every day.

Websites that ask for your information—do you know where it goes? Read privacy policies and browse through software updates before clicking “I accept.” Are you comfortable with what is happening with your data? Is the tradeoff worth it? If not, consider giving up this service, or contacting the website with your concerns.

Another step in protecting yourself is cutting off third-party tracking, which allows much of this data collection in the first place. UR, for example, has cut all third-party tracking by default to keep you from being followed around the internet (in case you missed it: a quick refresher in all the types of tracking).

Finally, if you don’t agree with data collection, consider becoming involved. There are many organzations worldwide which are created exactly for this purpose. A good place to start is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.