The increasing use of big data, and its associated analysis, brings great potential benefits to society, but also great potential risks involving data security, sensitive information, and discriminatory practices, according to Julie Brill, Federal Trade Commissioner.
Speaking at the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation Conference in Washington, D.C., Brill said: “There is no doubt that there are great benefits to a society relying on, and an economy driven by, big data. But there are also challenges. The success of this sort of economy depends on keeping global data flows open and training a workforce that can create useful innovations out of raw data. And even more importantly, the success of this sort of economy relies on protecting consumers from the risks to their privacy that big data can pose.”
She described three main challenges to consumer trust in a data-driven economy:
• Data security—“I am concerned that some of the data security lessons of the recent past aren’t being applied to these exciting new technologies [such as the Internet of Things, or interconnected devices].
A recent study by Hewlett-Packard found that 90% of connected devices are collecting personal information, and 70% of them are transmitting this data without encryption.
“As more devices become connected to the internet, the potential grows for more information about the most intimate details of our lives to slip into the wrong hands—and to leave other consumer devices and accounts vulnerable—unless appropriate security safeguards are put into place.”
• Sensitive health-related information—“Here in the United States I believe we’ve reached a general consensus, reflected in [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] and elsewhere, that personal information about health is deeply sensitive. Its inappropriate disclosure can cause severe embarrassment, harm an individual’s job and other economic prospects, or reveal information about family members,” said Brill.
• Discrimination and unethical data practices—Brill highlighted “the possibility of unfair or unethical treatment as companies use increasingly powerful analytics tools on the massive amounts of data that are available about individual consumers. This is a challenge that all companies need to take seriously.”
Risk of targeting with bad intent
Later in her presentation Brill said that “these and other big data tools have the potential to promote economic inclusion. For example, big-data-driven marketing can make underserved consumers aware of opportunities for credit and other services.”
“But there is also a clear potential for use of the information to be harmful and discriminatory, and to destroy consumer trust. The same data that allows banks to reach traditionally unbanked, financially vulnerable populations could just as easily be used to target them with advertisements for high-interest payday loans.”
Brill concluded on a cautionary note.
“The data-driven economy will not thrive,” she said, “unless the bits of consumer information collected and analyzed are used to benefit the consumer—plowed back into the relationship between businesses and their customers to make it stronger, deeper, and ultimately more profitable. That means winning customers’ trust by treating their privacy and private data with care, honesty, and respect. If that happens, I believe a comprehensive vision of ʻdata for good’ will be at hand.”