Jeff Jedras: Big data and the death of privacy

As a journalist, we’re trained not to applaud during keynotes and speeches. We’re there to be impartial observers, after all. But I was cheering inside recently during security vendor Kaspersky Lab‘s channel conference, when CEO Eugene Kaspersky became one of the first technology executives I’ve seen to dare pop the overinflated hype balloon that is big data.

Big data has surpassed cloud computing as the most over-hyped buzz term this year. Data analytics isn’t anything new, but with advancing technology more data is available to businesses than ever before. Vendors such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM are making big bets around big data, promising tools to harness all the data that’s out there to make better, faster, smarter decisions.

It’s all well and good for the businesses, but is it good for people? It’s a perspective I hadn’t heard raised much until Kaspersky raised the death of privacy as one of his top five security concerns.

“We can forget about privacy. There’s no privacy anymore,” said Kaspersky. “You can have privacy if you live somewhere in the jungle, or the middle of Siberia.”

Too much data is being collected about us, he said. In the U.K., cameras are everywhere. Google has a detailed picture of your online activities, as do other online services. And unless you pay cash and don’t use loyalty program cards, your shopping history is collected and stored as well.

“This is a national security issue. This data can be used not just against people, but against nations,” warned Kaspersky.

While Kaspersky never used the term big data, it’s an easy connection to make. After all, who do you think all that big data is about? It’s about us. A few weeks later, EMC did an interesting demo of future big data technology at its user conference. A smartphone tracked a shopper in a grocery store, sending his movements back to a data centre. Texts were generated recommending salsa to go with the chips he’d added to his cart, and a certain brand of beer because one of his Facebook friends had liked it, and maybe he’d like to invite him over.

Interesting from a technology perspective, sure, but chilling from a Big Brother perspective. Do I want corporations tracking my location by my smartphone, knowing my beverage preferences (red wine, if you’re having a party), and pestering me while I shop?

You can make a case for convenience, sure. But what can be used for good can also be used for more nefarious purposes, and we’re trusting corporations, and governments too, with an awful lot of personal information about our lives.

Kaspersky isn’t sure what the answer is here, particularly with people more and more willing to voluntarily give up their privacy for convenience, but he believes it needs to begin with regulation.

“We should make it forbidden to collect so much information about you. I recognize this as a serious problem,” said Kaspersky. “In some years there will be serious issues based on the fact there’s so much data collected.”

I’m not sure what the answers are either. But I do think that, before we go too much further down this road, a debate on the ethics of big data needs to happen, and policies need to be developed.

Because with big data comes big responsibilities.

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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