By clicking “Accept All Cookies,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation and analyze site usage.

Skip to main content

Latest ‘Frenemies:’ Privacy and Big Data

July 31, 2013

Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland recently offered some interesting observations — and expressed optimism — about the state of privacy in light of big data. During a panel discussion at the May 22 MIT CIO Symposium, he noted that global companies such as the telco Orange, as well as various governments, have used big data for public good helping to ease traffic congestion, improve public health concerns and even fight crime.

The technology is benign, it’s the use that has to be monitored, panelists agreed.  “If they can show benefits, they can get buy in,” Pentland said about data mining practices that have privacy implications. “Governments can operate better when they have more knowledge.” For example, real-time census data can address poverty, he said.

 At the same time, Pentland acknowledged the controversial issues arising from the proliferation of data and access to it.

“We will have to ask, what kind of society we want to create with all of this data,”

he said, and how the data will be used. Pentland expressed optimism “that privacy and data ownership issues will be taken care of in the EU, China and the U.S.”

The discussion turned out to be quite timely. In the weeks following the panel, the Obama Administration became embroiled in public scrutiny and debate because of leaked information from the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA), as part of its PRISIM program. It was revealed that information about citizens was secretly collected from online businesses such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft in the U.S. and abroad. It’s one of the first times that the global community is confronting the effects of big data and privacy breaches from online government surveillance.

Is it warranted as part of counterterrorism tactics or excessive? Is big data a friend or an enemy? How safe is data in the cloud, and what personal data protections are in place? In the EU, there is public concern about U.S. laws and policies as this USA Today commentary blog points out.

What are your thoughts and reactions? Share them here and discuss.