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Debate over big data and privacy is just getting started

For years, the tension between privacy and big data has been apparent, but with emerging technologies generating huge amounts of data, the debate will intensify.

As the number of data-generating devices in everyday life continues to grow, so grows the debate about how much of that data should be considered public, and when personal data should be considered private.

"We have all this information, and [for] much of it, we haven't really decided what's private versus public domain," said Mark Testoni, president and CEO of SAP National Security Services, a U.S.-based subsidiary of SAP that consults for federal security organizations and overseers of critical infrastructure, like dams, electrical grids and nuclear power facilities. He sees the debate over big data and privacy heating up.

"You can see very important, good reasons for this data to be considered public, but there's also, potentially, security concerns," Testoni said. "The big debate that we're going to see over the next few years is what is considered public versus private."

This issue has been in the headlines a lot recently. In December, a county prosecutor in Arkansas demanded that Amazon turn over data from a customer's Echo smart speaker. A man was found dead at the customer's home, and the prosecutor believes the speech-parsing service may have recorded information that might explain the death.

In January, the city of New York introduced new regulations that would require ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft, to turn over data about where users are picked up and dropped off. The city plans to analyze the data to make sure drivers adhere to rules requiring them to work no more than 10 consecutive hours, but Uber has pushed back, citing customers' privacy concerns.

In addition, in 2015, the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone of the suspected San Bernardino shooter.

These issues around big data and privacy will only become more prominent in the years ahead. Due to security concerns, cities and government agencies are installing cameras in more places. Advances in facial recognition technology, driven largely by deep learning, will make video data more searchable. At the same time, consumers are adopting new tools, like connected home devices and fitness trackers, which produce vast troves of data about them, all of which could theoretically be useful to criminal investigators and national security agencies.

"We've always had a healthy skepticism of what the government [is] going to use," Testoni said. "As public awareness rises, people are going to start challenging the government more. It's all about what the information is going to be used for."

According to Testoni, there's a need for tech products and services to simplify their terms of use contracts so that people actually read and understand them. These policies should include the circumstances under which the company will turn user data over to law enforcement authorities. Things are already trending in this direction, but they're not close to keeping up with the pace of technological change, which, for now, leaves people vulnerable to perceived abuses of their data.

"The next few years, we're going to have some billion internet of things devices connected," Testoni said. "The amount of digitized information is doubling every year or so. These debates will go on, and pretty soon, we'll have a next-generation debate."

Next Steps

Data collection leads to concerns over privacy in the age of big data

Privacy laws don't keep pace with evolving big data practices

Can privacy really exist in an era defined by big data?

This was last published in January 2017

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