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    New York Times: Big Data Means Big Questions on How That Information Is Used

    The New York Times reports on yesterday’s MIT- and White House-sponsored workshop “Big Data Privacy” and what all that data gathering and use means for average individuals’ privacy rights. The event is part of the White House’s recently announced review of privacy and big data. The Times reports:

    CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — With the success of its free open online course system, called MITx, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds itself sitting on a wealth of student data that researchers might use to compare the efficacy of virtual teaching methods, and perhaps advance the field of Web-based instruction. […]

    As researchers contemplate mining the students’ details, however, the university is grappling with ethical issues raised by the collection and analysis of these huge data sets, known familiarly as Big Data, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T.

    For instance, he said, serious privacy breaches could hypothetically occur if someone were to correlate the personal forum postings of online students with institutional records that the university had de-identified for research purposes. […]

    As the opening speaker at a workshop titled Big Data Privacy, sponsored by M.I.T. and the White House, Dr. Reif framed some of the big questions that have arisen from the increasing public and private sector use of powerful large-scale data-mining techniques.

    While proponents view such big data analytics as promising tools for discovering useful insights in medicine, education, marketing and many other fields, consumer advocates warn that without explicit federal rules or policies overseeing their use, computer-generated algorithms could potentially be used to identify people who would prefer to remain anonymous, or to discriminate unfairly. They could be used, for example, to offer some consumers perks while others are charged higher prices or interest rates.

    With that in mind, President Obama in January started a federal review intended to examine the impact of big-data technologies and whether they might pose new kinds of privacy intrusions into how people live and work. The workshop at M.I.T. is the first in a series of academic events, sponsored in part by the White House, intended to explore the technologies involved in big data and the privacy problems they may pose, along with potential policy and technological solutions.

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