How Big Data affects our lives

Big Data is as much of a threat to civil liberties as the misuse of genetic information and should be subject to exactly the same kind of ethical debate.

Professor Frank Pasquale, speaking at the RSA today, gave chilling examples of firms insisting employees use tracking (phones, FitBits etc) to track their lifestyles and then correlate the data with work performance. This, he says, is a big threat.

His argument focusses on three problems:

Collection. Technologies are adopted because they are slightly better than existing techniques, Pasquale argues, but they are still poor. That leads to frequent errors and If that happens  correcting it at source is difficulty. And even if it is corrected at source that doesn’t mean it will be corrected everywhere. This needs to changed, he argues, so there is a robust method for correcting errors everywhere they have been used. That is difficult, he acknowledged, but critical.

.  We are rapidly becoming an administered society, Pasquale believes, and phenomena such as Red/Yellow/Green pre-classifications are commonplace but opaque.  There are numerous examples of abuse, he says, such as people’s credit scores being penalised because they tried to dispute their credit score. “This is a Black Box problem,”he says.  The problem is that these systems are serving those who are scoring consumers not the consumers themselves. “It has become almost a quasi-judicial role,” he says. “A kind of Big Data Star Chamber.”

Uses of data. Credit card companies analysed their data and found something very interesting- people paying for marriage counselling on a card are more likely to subsequently default. This finding can then be used to raise rates or lower credit limits. This he says is very troubling as effectively we are penalising people who seek marriage guidance – a perverse outcome. The answer is to eliminate certain types of sensitive data such as health and sensitive behavioural data.

Pasquale pointed out that with the genetic revolution society decided that the issues were so important that we decided we needed serious ethical debate. Big Data, he says, is of a similar magnitude as an issue and needs a similar ethical debate.

One of the problems in this space is that national jurisdictions vary so much in how they handle the privacy issue. Pasquale says governments use this lack of standardisation sometimes to get around their own country’s rules. The answer, he believes, is more harmonisation of standards globally.

There are some very powerful uses that Big Data could be put to which would benefit humankind – improving response to illness, for example, by analysis of large anonymised data sets of medical data. And he points to another positive example in the treatment of returning veterans of the US Army. Veterans traditionally have a much higher suicide rate than the general population. The Durkheim Project aims to monitor the social networks of returning veterans and perform sentiment analysis to compare with patterns detected in the social networks of those who have previously committed suicide. This is done with full consent and is, he says, an excellent example of the positive use of Big Data Analytics.

Frank Pasquale is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland and an Affiliate Fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.