Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds

A Tyranny of Data? Business models like Kreditech's illustrate the sensitivity of the issues that many new Big Data applications raise. Users, of course, "voluntarily" relinquish their data step by step, just as we voluntarily and sometimes revealingly post private photos on Facebook or air our political views through Twitter. Everyone is ultimately a supplier of this large, new data resource, even in the analog world, where we use loyalty cards, earn miles and rent cars.

Perhaps many people do so with so little inhibition because what happens to our data often remains ambiguous. To whom and how often is our data sold? Are these buyers of data also subject to rules for deleting the data and preserving anonymity? And what will happen, for example, with Kreditech's credit profiles if the small business is ever acquired by a larger company or goes bankrupt?

An attempt by the established credit reviewers at SCHUFA to launch a pilot project on social scoring, together with the Hasso Plattner Institute, revealed just how sensitively the public reacts to such issues.

As with Kreditech, the project sought to analyze data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and examine its role in determining creditworthiness. Merely the announcement of the project triggered angry protests, and the effort was promptly abandoned.

There was an even greater storm of indignation when many drivers realized that their navigation devices don't just help them find the best route to their destinations, but can also be used against them. TomTom, a Dutch manufacturer of GPS navigation equipment, had sold its data to the Dutch government. It then passed on the data to the police, which used the information to set up speed traps in places where they were most likely to generate revenue -- that is, locations where especially large numbers of TomTom users were speeding.

Pre-programmed Conflicts

TomTom's CEO issued a public apology, saying that the company had believed that the government wanted the data to improve traffic safety and reduce road congestion. TomTom had not anticipated the use of the data for speed traps, he said.

Similar conflicts are practically pre-programmed into the technology, especially as a central conflict is inherent in its development. Big Data applications are especially valuable when they are personalized, as in the case of credit checks and individual medicine.

Personalized profiles, which bring together a wealth of information, from expressions of opinion on Facebook to movement profiles, provide companies with tempting possibilities. For instance, if someone "likes" a particular pair of jeans on Facebook, the storeowner could send a discount coupon for precisely the same brand of jeans to that person's mobile phone the next time he or she enters the store.

This may be appealing to retailers and some consumers, but data privacy advocates see many Big Data concepts as Big Brother scenarios of a completely new dimension.

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