We need to talk about Big Brother


eirAndy O’Kelly
Chief Architect


As our lives become ever more entwined with the digital world – as a workplace, marketplace, source of entertainment and meeting place for friends and family at home and on the move – our daily activities leave trails and patterns. These trails tell a lot about us to anyone with access to the data and the inclination to use it. 


Big Data provides valuable insight

A vivid example of this was Chinese service provider Baidu’s real time mapping the migration of people during the Spring Festival. The event sees almost 2.8 billion individual trips undertaken as people return home from largely urban centres. Baidu maps the location based on an app (similar to Google Maps) on their customer’s mobile phones, which serves about 6 billion searches per day. 

A fascinating article on Bloomberg investigates how the Big Data being produced by Baidu and other network-based services such as card payments is proving invaluable in assessing actual economic indicators and trends in China in the absence of official sources. This has included employment indexes showing activity levels by type of location, and the identification of Ghost Cities based on disproportionately low mobile user traffic.   


But what about privacy concerns?

Being able to track an individual’s mobile activity and location to determine – or attribute – a particular behaviour to that individual is obviously a profound privacy issue. Business models suggested in the past proposed that service providers would charge business customers based on the perceived value and relevance of what they discover within their consumer data.

Although some technology boosters believe that consumers are increasingly immune to privacy concerns once the quality and convenience of the application experience is compelling enough, the EU-wide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May 2018, will bring this area into sharper focus. The specific purpose for which personal information is collected, used and retained will need to be explicitly agreed with the person concerned, who must also be informed who will have access to this data. Terms and conditions will need to be intelligible and easily accessible, and consent will need to be requested for a specific described data processing purpose.

Value attracts crime, and criminals are unlikely to be concerned by regulation. Of course there will continue to be actors with malicious or criminal intent seeking to exploit our reliance and exposure in the cyber world. Increased security awareness in society will improve overall resilience to the benefit of the private citizen, Government and business alike.


Big Data use needs to be more transparent

Whether the intended clarity around the use of personal information is effective in protecting citizen privacy, the regulation should make the commercialisation of Big Data more transparent. I have heard Big Data described as an intellectual rather than a technological challenge. But the technological challenge is not trivial, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining the skills and talent that are now in high demand for new database structures and systems.

While the science is developing rapidly, the art is in determining what the questions are, and this is a more fluid and experimental arena. Describing the purpose for which data is being collected and with whom it will be shared at the outset of such experimentation and discovery will prove to be an ongoing challenge.

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eirAndy O’Kelly
Chief Architect