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“Big data” involves the aggregation of hundreds or thousands of pieces of information about consumers to build a picture of each consumer’s wants and needs, and it can sound sinister. There are certainly privacy issues around big data. Should it be feared? The most accurate answer might be a wishy-washy sounding “yes and no” or perhaps a more accurate “sometimes.”

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What Is Big Data?

There is nothing new about the practice of companies collecting customer information, but the difference with big data is the scope. As computers become increasingly powerful, they can collect, store and analyze information about people on a scale that is unprecedented. It is this scope, along with the inherent vulnerability of any digital data, that has privacy advocates and others worried about its use.

The Bad News

There is plenty of bad news about big data. Companies do not always protect their information well, and this can lead to breaches. While most people think in terms of identity theft and data like social security numbers, passwords, and account numbers, in some cases, even more sensitive information could be seized, such as data on medical diagnoses. Furthermore, big data can still be fallible, and this can lead to the wrong people being placed on watch lists, losing access to needed benefits and other errors. The rise of facial recognition software has people worried about the prospect of a surveillance state that can track their movements wherever they go. Big data could also be used to discriminate against people who have low scores or rankings in certain areas. An article in The Conversation mentions one man whose credit score was reduced simply because he shopped at the same places as other people who had late payments.

Big data and artificial intelligence go hand-in-hand, and big data is making machines smarter. This could mean more jobs performed by humans being turned over to machines instead.

The Good News

Big data can make shopping or selecting things like movies easier by providing more accurate recommendations. With big data, consumer loyalty programs can offer rewards more accurately tailored to individuals. An article in Forbes argues that big data can be used for the greater good of society and may mean that solutions to such problems as world poverty are in reach.

The Big Data Future

Like most tools, big data is only as good as the users that wield it, and it is likely in the years ahead that organizations, businesses, and governments will use big data for both beneficial and sinister reasons. It is common for laws and regulations to lag behind technological innovations, so some of the privacy concerns people raised may be addressed in the years ahead.

New technology and new approaches to technology always carry certain risks. There are also generally unanticipated drawbacks to new technology that must be addressed as they become apparent. The misuse of information is probably one of the biggest risks of big data, and it is important for people to continue monitoring how information is gathered and used to prevent these abuses. Ultimately, big data can be sinister and useful at the same time, but whatever people think of it, its role in their everyday lives in the years ahead is likely to grow.


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