Don’t Panic but You’re Being Watched: Policy Issues of Big Data

Collect everything. That seems to be the dominant philosophy in Big Data, a field whose imposing name commands fear in many. With more sophisticated computing resources and techniques to gather information being introduced each passing year, it has overhauled multiple fields. Even your favourite sports team is probably running through mountains of numbers behind closed doors to ensure they don’t fall behind the rest of the league.

Data analytics are often best applied to systems with fairly unpredictable dynamics, namely most situations involving humans, simply because our patterns and behaviour are more chaotic and volatile than we’d think. Snapshots often provide useful information, but Big Data takes this idea to the extreme; rather than simple snapshots, why not a constant video recording? Now that the tools to gather ample information are available, companies and organizations are capitalizing on that information to do something useful, whether it be analyzing past trends, predicting future outcomes, or trying to figure out why you’ve been watching so much Netflix lately.

The crux of the issue lies in the original source of the information. Companies and governments aren’t collecting data on bacteria or inanimate objects – they’re collecting data on you. It’s this point that sharply turns the Big Data discussion towards issues of privacy and individual liberty. One of the more infamous cases in recent Canadian history was a scandal involving TD Bank. In November of 2015, the CBC revealed that hidden deep within the complicated legalese that most customers accept without thinking twice, the bank had slipped in fine print that would give it access to the internet browsing activity of its card users. Amidst cries chastising TD for its dubious behaviour and abuse of public trust, the real underlying problem became apparent: we simply haven’t drafted effective legislation for the age of Big Data. The problem lies not necessarily with TD, but with the system at large that TD was so easily able to exploit.

Now, does this mean that TD, and likely many other companies and organizations, are frantically going through every detail of your old Yahoo Answers account history? No. They probably wouldn’t care and there’s simply too much data available to scrape through all of it. In the case of TD, they’d be spending more time looking for information more relevant to banking, like whether it looks like you’re moving, or if you’re thinking about investing some of your money soon. But where do we draw the line between a company that’s just trying to get a competitive edge and one that’s violated a citizen’s privacy?

Privacy breaches of this nature are not possible without the massive advances in data analytics over the past few years. Like anything involving new technology, the policy and legislation surrounding the area are ill defined and leave much room for exploitation. Although public policy has historically remained under the purview of legal professionals and politicians, the traditional system is ineffective and unsustainable in dealing with problems like Big Data where the issue is as deeply entrenched within the engineering and science of the systems as it is within the legalese. If the fallout from Big Data controversies has taught us anything, it’s that engineers should be at the forefront of public policy. Our technical knowledge and evidence-based approach are vital in approaching the complex issues of our time, especially when it comes to areas that have a real, tangible impact on our society.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Big Data debate and how engineers can apply their skills to public policy in general, feel free to attend the upcoming Big Data Policy Hive on October 5 at 6PM, administered by Professional Outreach (PrO), a student organization dedicated towards spreading awareness of the engineer’s role in public policy.