The New York Times reports on “big data” (where your online and offline activities are gathered and compiled) and the privacy questions that arise from the use of such data:
Today, many experts predict that the next wave [of innovation] will be driven by technologies that fly under the banner of Big Data — data including Web pages, browsing habits, sensor signals, smartphone location trails and genomic information, combined with clever software to make sense of it all.
Proponents of this new technology say it is allowing us to see and measure things as never before — much as the microscope allowed scientists to examine the mysteries of life at the cellular level. Big Data, they say, will open the door to making smarter decisions in every field from business and biology to public health and energy conservation. […]
But the latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy — an issue so crucial that it could trump all others and upset the Big Data bandwagon. [Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist and director of the Human Dynamics Lab at the M.I.T.,] is a champion of the Big Data vision and believes the future will be a data-driven society. Yet the surveillance possibilities of the technology, he acknowledges, could leave George Orwell in the dust.
The World Economic Forum published a report late last month that offered one path — one that leans heavily on technology to protect privacy. The report grew out of a series of workshops on privacy held over the last year, sponsored by the forum and attended by government officials and privacy advocates, as well as business executives. The corporate members, more than others, shaped the final document.
The report, “Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage,” recommends a major shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use of data. Curbs on the use of personal data, combined with new technological options, can give individuals control of their own information, according to the report, while permitting important data assets to flow relatively freely. […]
The forum report suggests a future in which all collected data would be tagged with software code that included an individual’s preferences for how his or her data is used. All uses of data would have to be registered, and there would be penalties for violators. For example, one violation might be a smartphone application that stored more data than is necessary for a registered service like a smartphone game or a restaurant finder. […]
Corporate executives and privacy experts agree that the best way forward combines new rules and technology tools. But some privacy professionals say the approach in the recent forum report puts way too much faith in the tools and too little emphasis on strong rules, particularly in moving away from curbs on data collection.