How the Big Data Push Will Cause Even Bigger Privacy Concerns

Last week the California Right to Know data access bill, aka AB 1291, was successfully pushed back another two years. It’s a win for the techies, but a major loss for the half a dozen watchdog groups and consumers, who supported the Big Data act. Not surprisingly, they fell flat under the $15 million-plus the tech industry has spent lobbying to keep its voice heard down every congressional hall.

While Silicon Valley is given more leeway than other industries might get, it is still only a matter of time before it loses that new car smell and people start to take note. In fact, many have already spoken, with a majority of consumers saying that it’s time to be transparent.

But will we listen in time?

Currently, consumers are pretty uninformed about how data collected on them is being used. Web pages, search engines, and even cell phones, email providers and that brain teaser app you downloaded to improve your smarts, are collecting information on location, purchase histories, and whether or not you’re more likely to treat your ingrown hair at the doctor or pharmacy counter. While 37% of consumers aren’t comfortable with how much information is collected, another 33% may not even be aware their data is being collected and analyzed at all.

Thus, the call for greater transparency and disclosure isn’t all about privacy. Big Data proponents need to improve general awareness and access to the real-world benefits. Depending on who informs them first, a consumer may only hear about the overreach of commercial interests rather than the personal growth opportunities to be found within this horde of information. For example, if your debit card could give you a list of all the fast food calories you’ve eaten in a week, and how much you’ve spent, do you think you’d be so eager for a burger and fries the next time you pull up to that window?

The Right to Know act wasn’t considered more than a humble attempt at opening up data collection processes and content to consumers, yet it was beaten into submission for its expense on businesses. This is despite the many examples of the human tendency to overreact in the face of adverse action or inaction; eventually all it’s going to take is one more stain to say the pants are dirty and they need to be thrown in the trash (anyone thinking of Google?).

So, what’s the solution? Do we go with the MEF Global Privacy Report that changes the focus to restricting data usage rather than collection? Do we put the power in the hands of those busy people, in brief, layman’s contracts that are accepted before every app is downloaded, website visited and message sent? Do we go so far as to offer a national “do not collect” list, or focus efforts on case-by-case opt out?

Whatever the solution, it’s important we start communicating with the public on the positive impacts of big data – preferably before any new legislation is put on the table. The more consumers understand about big data, the less chance there is for a legislative overreaction.