Big data ‘is taking advantage of us without our permission’

People disclose data almost every minute of every day.

Google Maps, Twitter and Foursquare track location; Uber and Capital BikeShare know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there; we inform diet sites what we ate and how much time we spent at the gym; our calendars are online; and every time we swipe our credit card at a physical or online merchant, our actions are being tracked.

According to Julie Brill, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, “that’s where the ‘big’ in big data comes from.”

Brill spoke June 26 at the 23rd Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference, appropriately themed this year, “Our Computers, Our Freedom: Can You Trust Anyone in the Digital Age?”


Brill points out the National Security Agency leak involving Edward Snowden ignited a much-needed and overdue debate on balancing the privacy rights of citizens and national security. She said Snowden gave the world a “crash course” in the amount of privacy to be expected when participating in an increasingly mobile and online marketplace.

“For those of us who have been looking at the issue of privacy in the Internet age for several years, there is a further benefit,” Brill said. “Americans are now more aware than ever of how much their personal data is free-floating in cyberspace, ripe for any data miner — government or otherwise — to collect, use, package and sell.”

Brill also noted the extent to which we are already flooded with data. In 2011, 1.8 trillion gigabytes of data were created. That number equals every U.S. citizen writing three tweets per minute for almost 27,000 years. Furthermore, 90 percent of all the world’s data has been created in the past two years. If the cost of data storage keeps decreasing and accessibility to technology continues growing, this number is expected to double every two years.

“Therein lies the biggest challenge of big data: It is taking advantage of us without our permission,” Brill said. “Often without consent or warning, and sometimes incompletely surprising ways, big data analysts are tracking our every click and purchase, examining them to determine exactly who we are — establishing our name, good or otherwise — and retaining the information in dossiers that we know nothing about, much less consent to.”

Latest Podcasts