By Marc R Gagné MAPP Senior Privacy and Data Advocate, Cyber Intelligence and Director @ Gagne Legal. See more about Marc here. Image from pixabay here.

Every few centuries, new technology comes along to change the world. And with each evolutionary stage, we give something up in order for the whole to move forward.

When humans learned to plant seeds and agrarian society was formed, they gave up a roaming, nomadic lifestyle. When the cotton gin and railroads gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, we slowly gave up the pastoral life for a grittier, urban existence. When that gave way to the “information age”, we gave up high-paying jobs that didn’t require a college degree, leaving millions without an easy path to wealth.

So goes the world, and now we are on the brink of yet another transformation: the era of Big Data. That may not sound like a revolution, but the implications are nothing short of drastic and forever life-altering.

Your Digital Profile Has Already Been Set

One way to connect these sweeping, global changes to your own life is to think about the digital things you do every day. You shop online, use your cell phone, drive under toll-collecting highway surveillance cameras, write emails, or swipe your rewards card at the grocery store. It’s all data that’s stored somewhere.

That itself present security issues, but the problems don’t stop there. Data collection is one thing, but when it’s mined: there goes your privacy. And we have to assume that if it’s collected, it will be mined. Maybe not today, but someday.

Awakening the Dragon

By leaving these personal digital clues to be picked up by whatever data-devouring entities exist, we are “feeding” our private information to a collective entity. In and of itself, this entity, called “Big Data”, is harmless. It’s simply a massive collection of information, neither good nor bad, but powerless and neutral.

But what happens when something powerful enough actually comes along to “awaken the dragon”, in effect harnessing those powers to do good or evil, thus creating a monster? When mined, that “data monster” could be used to do good (catching criminals and saving the environment) or evil (rigging elections, discriminating against certain populations in finance, education, business and more).

When that happens (you could say it already is), we may realize it’s too late to chain that dragon back up in the dungeon. The monster has been feeding on our data for years, just waiting for the intelligence to catch up.

That dragon-awakening intelligence, by the way, is advancing rapidly, and it’s already poking at the sleeping sides of that huge dragon. We know it as Artificial Intelligence, of course, and the implications for privacy are devastating.

Transformation, Seen in a Positive Light

Envisioning a future enhanced by Big Data isn’t hard. Hollywood does it for us, as does every other media outlet, with fun imaginings where all our problems are solved by Big Data: schools are run better, terrorists are discovered before they can kill, tumors are sniffed out before they can do real harm, and so on.

Some cities are now in the beginning stages of becoming “smart cities”, where utility usage and traffic flow are monitored and improved by artificial intelligence systems. The possibilities of life improvements are seemingly endless.

The Flip Side: Our Privacy, Dissolving Away

So of course people are for the benefits of Big Data when those benefits are presented in a rosy, futuristic light that paints a future free from disease, crime, poverty, and inequality.

However, when confronted with the implications of what that data can do when it falls into the wrong hands, we balk: hackers, the Police State, leaked credit card numbers, shared medical information. We’re already suffering some of the downsides of Big Data, and we’ve only yet begun the aforementioned transformation of our society.

This dichotomy points to one of the great dilemmas of our time: What to do about privacy in the face of Big Data. Most of us want the benefits and we can’t seem to slow the forward roll of Big Data, but perhaps not enough people are actually looking into what we’re giving up: namely: privacy.

Furthermore: we worry about hackers but data doesn’t even have to fall into the wrong hands to present a danger: it can simply be misinterpreted, or merely used for purposes that don’t align with our own individual goals. That’s already happening in business.

“We feel like all data is credit data”

-former Google CIO Douglas Merrill

Consider the difficult matter of warrantless surveillance or the battles between Apple and the FBI over encryption protocols. This is bigger than hacking: it’s about our right to privacy and how that right will be protected, moving forward into the new era of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

The Danger of Big Data

Not that the danger of Big Data isn’t already a topic. Marketers already talk about the dangers of Big Data. However, it’s within a context that seems to ignore privacy issues. The current discussion in their industry centers around whether quantitative research (i.e. mining Big Data) should replace qualitative research (i.e. surveys, polls, observation, interviews), and how much money is poured into systems that help them glean these new digitally-derived insights.

Broaden the scope and you’ll see talk of the real danger, and that’s where use of Big Data infringes on people’s privacy. Of course this is already a heated point of discussion in politics, but here too, in these circles, the discussion is too contextual. That is: people’s feelings may lie along the line of how they feel about the players in any given privacy battle.

For example, in Apple vs. FBI, those who historically tend to side with law enforcement might align themselves with the FBI on this fight. But Apple, whose leaders have shown advocacy for a range of civil liberties, might draw support from liberals, despite their feelings about privacy. In other words, the discussion can easily become political, which it is not.

New Notions of Privacy are Changing the World

Let’s zoom out again to get at the real heart of the matter: beyond the use of Big Data in marketing, beyond politically-bound issues focusing on Big Data and privacy. How will the the collection of data from the Internet of Things change society?

As a hint of what’s to come, and an answer to that question: willingly, we already surrender our information to Facebook without considering for a moment the implications. That’s hard evidence that the big shift has begun to occur: our notions of privacy have already changed, all the better to feed the privacy monster.

In fact, the definition of privacy as the state of being left alone is no longer realistic in this new era of Big Data. Privacy itself has already been transformed. It’s too late to turn back and your data is already out there: there is no more “being left alone”. It’s now merely a matter of how well your data will be protected from here on out.

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