September 16, 2013

Relax and Learn to Love Big Data

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow
Summary

The Internet ate my privacy! That's the way many people feel these days and it's hard to blame them. It seems like there's more information about us flowing around online with each passing day, whether we intended that to happen or not.

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The Internet ate my privacy! That's the way many people feel these days and it's hard to blame them. It seems like there's more information about us flowing around online with each passing day, whether we intended that to happen or not.

But there are also great benefits associated with those data flows and the uses of our personal information, and lawmakers should be careful when seeking to curtail commercial data collection and use or else they could kill the goose that lays the Internet's golden eggs.

In recent years, concerns about our digital privacy have been exacerbated by the growth of "big data," or massive datasets that are used by companies and other organizations to catalog information about us. These data sets are used to tailor new and better digital services to us and also to target ads to our interests, which helps keep online content and service cheap or free. But some critics still fear the ramifications for our privacy of all this data being collected.

Policymakers are responding with stepped-up efforts to enact new regulations, or at least get industry to voluntarily agree to certain data "best practices" or codes of conduct. Various privacy advocates have pushed these efforts fearing that, without new regulation, we will forever lose control of our data or, worse yet, be subjected to new forms of economic or social discrimination.

While some of these concerns about big data are understandable, the critics often overstate these dangers while also glossing over the overwhelming benefits. They also ignore the extent to which people adapt to new information technologies over time.

First, consider some of the benefits of big data. Many of the information services and digital technologies that we enjoy and take for granted today came about not necessarily because of some initial grand design, but rather through innovative thinking after-the-fact about how preexisting data sets might be used in interesting new ways. Some examples include: language translation tools, mobile traffic services, digital mapping technologies, spam and fraud detection tools, instant spell-checkers and more.

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