Big Data Privacy Isn’t Just for Data Geeks and Privacy Freaks Anymore

Big Data Privacy Isn’t Just for Data Geeks and Privacy Freaks Anymore

by Tamara Dull, Director of Emerging Technologies for SAS Best Practices –January 2015.

It’s for you, me, them, and us. That’s right, and I’ll show you what I mean in a minute. But let’s be honest: When you read or hear the phrase “big data privacy,” you’re ready to swipe or click to the next screen or you start thinking about that meeting you need to prepare for. Even though you know the discussion is important, it’s not exciting, it’s sometimes creepy, and frankly, it’s not easy to navigate its complexities – even for the data geeks and privacy freaks.

We are living in a big data world. And when it comes to big data’s impact on privacy, we seem to be caught in this tug-of-war with multiple players and perspectives – namely, that of the consumer, the citizen, and the private and public sectors. There’s no question that we play multiple roles when it comes to big data privacy; in fact, some of these roles may even conflict and have different priorities. So what can we do? Where do we even begin to navigate this complex web of big data privacy? Let’s take a look at five actions we each can take.

Action 1. Take digital control and reduce your digital footprint.

This step applies to all of us as consumers. I could easily spew out hundreds of tips and tricks on how to take digital control of your life, but for the sake of space and time, I’ll highlight three ideas:

  • Make sure all the information you share passes the Mom test. Or the Thanksgiving dinner test. The Mom test considers what your mom would think if she saw the information online. Would she approve? The Thanksgiving dinner test asks: Would you be willing to share this information at the turkey table? If you can’t pass these two tests, red flags should be going up.
  • Create professional and personal personas with your online networks. Use different email addresses. Use a different browser for each persona so there is no cross-tracking.
  • Become a stealth browser user. Here are two simple things you can do immediately: block third-party cookies and enable anti-tracking software like Disconnect. There’s a lot of options here. Google it.

Bottom line: If you don’t share it, they can’t use it or abuse it.


Action 2. Give customers easy access and rights to their data.

The following “letter” is directed at the private sector, but could be applicable to any organization, for profit or not:

Dear Favorite Company,

I would like to make four requests:

  1. If I give you my personal data for free, don’t go behind my back and share or sell it to someone else without my knowledge.
  2. Figure out a simple way to help me understand who owns my data, who has rights to it, and for how long.
  3. Make it easy for me to access and manage my own data.   
  4. Be transparent about what and how my data is being used, what requests have been made by external entities, and the steps you’re taking to keep my data secure.

Sincerely yours,


Bottom line: If you’re in the business of collecting and using customer data, treat it as a corporate asset and respond accordingly.


Action 3. Become a privacy advocate.

Most of us are aware that politicians buy reports about us. They know the issues we support, how much money we make, and what we like and dislike on Facebook. We’ve all been profiled in sometimes not-so-flattering ways. The reality is that many citizens have no idea that they’ve been profiled. Not only do they have no idea, they have no way to control that process.

So what can we do? Some would argue that erasing your digital footprint as much as possible is the way to go. But let me ask you this: Are you ready to give up technology to preserve your privacy? I’m not. We have come a long way in the last 20 years and there are a lot of upsides in this new digital economy.

So, again, what can we do? The better answer is to fight back and become a privacy advocate. We talked about a few ideas in the first action about taking digital control. But here, as fellow citizens, we need to work together, collectively and collaboratively, to make sure we have rights to our data. That we can review our data. Or correct it. Or remove it. Or dispute it.

Protecting privacy goes beyond signing online petitions and adding comments in Facebook. It’s something that we need to do for ourselves, and then do again on behalf of others. Here’s a few more ideas:

  • Continue to educate yourself. The more informed you are about big data privacy issues, the more influential you can be in shaping and affecting data privacy policies, standards, and regulations.
  • Pick your battles. Start with the companies you do business with frequently or communities you’re involved with.
  • Understand that your choices aren’t everyone’s choices. What I deem important and valuable may not be as important to you, and vice versa.

Bottom line: Focus on the right issues and don’t get side-tracked. Be the voice that speaks up – even when it’s not convenient and you don’t feel supported. Because if it’s not you, then who?


Action 4. Take a lead role in the global privacy theater.

This step is directed at the public sector. No country is leading the way when it comes to data privacy—but this doesn’t mean significant efforts aren’t being made.

In the US, the White House released two reports in 2014 on big data privacy. There’s still lots of work to do, but it’s a start. The FTC, the agency who handles consumer protection issues, also released a report recently recommending that data brokers give consumers more control over their data. Again, it’s a start. Just last week, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, gave considerable air time to a few key technology issues, including broadband, cybersecurity, data breach reporting, and consumer privacy. The big data privacy discussion is on the U.S. government table.

Europe remains big in the news with their right to be forgotten act. Eric Schmidt from Google went on a 7-country tour a couple of months ago to hear views about the best ways to remove search engine links to information that petitioners contend is intrusive and no longer relevant. To date, Google has received over 200,000 requests for the removal of almost 750,000 URLs, with 60% of them being removed so far.

Big data privacy on a global scale is extremely complex. Given that data is growing exponentially and knows no borders, and views of privacy vary around the globe, we have our work cut out for us. With the U.S. being the home to 1/3 of all the data in the world, the U.S. has an opportunity to step forward.

Bottom line: As citizens, we can support politicians and policy makers who are passionate about these privacy issues and are actively engaged in moving the ball forward. Do we know who these players are? Let’s do our homework and find out.


Action 5. Stop the madness.

Myths, distractions, and misunderstandings about big data privacy continue to circulate – courtesy of “you, me, them, and us” via our favorite media and social channels. We need to educate ourselves. We need to be able to separate the facts from the fiction. We need to stop the madness.

Let me give you an example: You hear people say “I’ve got nothing to hide” or “If I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.”

If this is what you believe, you’re missing the point.

Statements like this are just a distraction from the real discussion of online privacy. Consider this: Every day, someone new is coming online. Maybe it’s a young person who just got his first iPhone or it’s someone in a region who’s just getting affordable access for the first time. They don’t know the rules. And even though you may not care about being openly tracked, don’t put these newbies into a dangerous situation by letting them believe the internet is safe. Because it’s not.

Bottom line: Big data privacy isn’t just for data geeks and privacy freaks anymore. It’s for all of us – as consumers, as citizens, and as employees in the private and public sectors. As Maya Angelou so famously said, “When you know better, you do better.” It’s a big data world out there. Now let’s be safe.

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