Big Data and Privacy

Earlier this week, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a seventy two page report on the intersection of Big Data and Privacy with an unoriginal title of:  Big Data And Privacy: A Technological Perspective.  It started by first establishing the groundwork for the traditional definition of privacy, as defined by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890.  These individuals stipulated that privacy infractions can occur in one of four ways:

  1. Intrusion upon seclusion.  If a person intentionally intrudes upon the solitude of another person (or their affairs), and the intrusion is seen as "highly offensive" then an invasion of privacy has occurred.
  2. Public disclosure of private facts.  If a person publishes private facts, even if true, about someone's life - an invasion of privacy has occurred.
  3. Defamation, or the publication of untrue facts, is an invasion of privacy.
  4. Removing personal control of an individual's name and/or likeness for commercial gain is an invasion of privacy.

These infractions basically come down to a removal of the control that an individual has over various aspects of their life (being left alone, selective disclosure, and reputation), and PCAST tends to agree as they state a couple of times throughout their report about the need for selective sharing and anonymity.  The report went on to address a few philosophical changes in our mindset about privacy that were needed in order to better enable the successful implementation of the five aforementioned recommendations:

 

  • We must first acknowledge that private communication interception is easier
  • We need to extend "Home as one's castle" to become "The Castle in the Clouds"
  • Inferred Private facts are just as stolen as real data
  • The misuse of data and loss of selective anonymity is the key issue.

 

The report goes on to state that the majority of the concern is with the harm done by the use of personal data and that the historic way of preventing misuse of personal data has been in controlling access; a measure that is no longer made possible in today's nebulous world of data ownership.

Personal data may never be, or have been, within one's possession.

From public cameras and sensors to other people using social media, we simply have no control over who collects data from whom; and we likely never will again.  Which raises the question of who owns the data and who controls it.

And while the Electronic Frontier Foundation would complain (again) that this failed to address metadata (in spite of it equating metadata to actual data in the first few pages), this report comes on the eve of a unanimous vote in the House to rein in the National Security Agency making this a big week for big data privacy advocates.