Big data privacy policies focus on wrong problem

John C. Tanner

Consumer trust will be crucial for telcos leveraging big data in the coming years, but governments are writing ineffective data privacy protection policies based on the wrong paradigm.

At the opening keynote of the CommunicAsia2014 Summit, a big data expert warned telcos that trust will become vital as they gather more data from consumers, not least because of big data’s increasingly predictive ability.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, pointed to examples such as Rolls-Royce using sensor data from its jet engines to offer a “predictive maintenance” service which determines when an engine part will fail before it fails, and a case in which US retailer Target determined from its customer data that a 16-year-old girl was pregnant before either she or her parents knew.

“If you find that creepy, you’re right,” Mayer-Schonberger said. “The scenario in the film Minority Report is precisely the direction we’re headed.”

Consequently, data privacy policies are needed to protect consumers and build up trust in this new big-data ecosystem. “If we don’t rescue data privacy protection now, it’ll be dead.”

The problem, Mayer-Schonberger said, is that current policy efforts are focused on how data is gathered, not how it’s used.

“When customers sign up for a service or download an app, they are often asked to opt in via a 20-page form outlining data privacy, and many people click okay without reading it,” he said. “The idea of informed consent has been reduced to a formality that makes a mockery of the original vision. So this idea of consent is useless.”

However, that’s exactly the area that data privacy initiatives are trying to address, he argued. “Many countries are still enacting data privacy policies based on an outdated paradigm. You may think you’re ahead of the curve, but you’re really behind it.”

 One key reason for focusing on reuse is because “the value of big data doesn’t come from the primary purpose for which it’s gathered - now the value comes from the sum of all the multiple uses we can put it to,” Mayer-Schonberger said.



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