The documents exposed by former NSA agent, Edward Snowden, brought into focus the massive extent of data collection undertaken by governments and private institutions. The collection, analysis and use (or misuse) of terabytes of data, throws open the question: Does the reward of Big Data compensate for the privacy violations it generates?
Have you ever noted that the advertisements at the side of your Facebook screen is the exact product you selected while online shopping site recently? This customised advertisement is private corporations’ collection and analysis of your browsing data and online activities without your knowledge.
Is this creepy or convenient? Where do we draw the line between Big Data’s benefits and its privacy concerns? Big Data is a term broadly used to define a mindset that is obsessed with collection of quantitative information. Under Big Data, every bit of information is welcome, broadly under two types: One, is the active submission of own personal data by individuals to private entities or the government, and two, is the passive collection of data by private corporations and government agencies.
In 2011, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that in ten years we’ll share a thousand times as much as we do now. This was both an observation and a goal. The accumulation of personal data has an adverse effect on privacy. A researcher will draw entirely different conclusions from a string of online search queries; by collating thousands of search queries, you can understand how data becomes more revealing. Moreover, once data – such as a click stream or a cookie number – is linked to an identified individual, they become difficult to disentangle.
It is both unfortunate, as well as risky, that we trade privacy for increased convenience in terms of customised content, or better product suggestions. We hit ‘I agree’ to different terms and conditions without fully understanding how the data would be handled and who would own it. The internet browsing, games, social networking sites – all seem ‘free’ to us – but, are used as an exchange. Companies take the user data, sell it to advertisers and make money. And yet, why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?
Unfortunately, the legal framework protecting privacy is as muddled as the notion of privacy itself. Moreover, cross border flow of information, or data stored in foreign servers cannot be covered under individual country laws and a global consensus is yet to be arrived at.
To tackle the issue, apart from a need for stronger encryption of shared information, what is required is an extensive discourse. This critical conversation needs to be brought out into public and research domains. You may not be able to stop them from tracking you, but you can make it harder by encrypting email accounts, adding a proxy to your OS and keeping your data out of hands of the private corporations that feed it to the government/third party buyers.
People need to come out and demand for their right to privacy – a very basic, yet essential right. Otherwise, a day might come when privacy becomes a luxury, or extinct.