Big Data: Unlocking the Black Box

Data is tricky business – the potential that lies beneath unfathomable amounts of data, coupled with the perils of collecting and stocking huge amounts of information, a lot of it personal and identifiable, creates a sort-of catch-22 for big data purveyors and enthusiasts. And, as companies ramp up data collection on consumers and users, policymakers and governments are increasingly demonizing big data for its inherent privacy concerns.

But, according to Privacy Forum co-chair and director Jules Polonetsky, there's a happy medium when it comes to big data, and it starts with companies collecting and using the data.

“Data is being treated like oil, valuable but a serious environmental hazard,” Polonetsky said. “If the trend continues, data will be soon be treated like tobacco, with tight restrictions to be imposed.”

How can the industry move away from a less-than-flattering image when it comes to data use? By opening up the black box, Polonetsky argued.

“Policymakers and consumers should be able to be sure that the black boxes that govern the decisions about how we are treated aren’t up to no good,” he said.

And, indeed, there are a few bad apples in the bunch – spoiling consumers' impressions of big data; but, according to Polonetsky, few companies out there are truly 'evil,' even if the boundaries of data collection continue to wide, and the tactics continue to become more cryptic.

"Many are increasingly tracking everything we do online and offline and marketing to us in disconcerting and secretive ways,” Polonetsky said. “There can and should be measures that draw boundaries around the most aggressive of these activities.”

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