Why should Big Data have more right to privacy than people?

WASHINGTON D.C. — What if we treated dataBigData with the same scrutiny as people?  When a consumer applies for a loan or a job, firms uses massive databases and can consider thousands of data points when they assess the integrity of that person. But what if consumers could, in equal painstaking detail, interrogate the integrity of the data? What if every single piece of data about you had to declare where it came from, where it was bought and sold, what it had been used for, and so on?

That was the provocative suggestion made by Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti in Washington D.C. today at a conference devoted to Big Data and its ability to treat consumers fairly.   

As you might imagine, no industry representative jumped at the opportunity. In fact, his suggestion was entirely ignored.

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It shouldn’t be. The technology certainly exists that would give consumers this fair playing field when it comes to their data. After all, it is their data (despite what industry groups might argue, they they own the data they collect and the inferences they draw.).

Acquisti was simply offering a idea that would bring about more transparency in a world that is dogged by murky, shady operators. Firms don’t just collect data about consumers as they browse, or walk around stores, or use their credit cards.  They do it secretly. They hate answering questions about it. In fact, they think the mystery surrounding the data is actually the value of the data.

Monday’s conference, titled “Big Data: Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion,” included a lot of the usual meaningless privacy dialog around policy and disclosure and best practices.  The discussions were lively, but this elephant in the room was rarely addressed.  Credit scores work, when they work, because consumers don’t understand them. Once consumers understand them, they can game them, and banks move on to something more obscure.  The data collection industry pays lip service about preventing consumer harm. But there is little to believe industry actors want anything more than to make as much money as they can by invading consumers’ privacy as much as they can get away with.

As Acquisti pointed out, the battle is asynchronous. Consumers can be interrogated with alarming tenacity, but they enjoy very little in the way of rights to face the digital 1s and 0s that constitute their accuser.

Not surprisingly, the idea of giving consumers more rights to control their information and its use was greeted with frosty newsspeak — “Consumers hate dealing with cookie warnings when the browse the web!. They don’t want more rights!” was the basic, cynical response.


FTC Commissioner Julie Brill was among the speakers who alluded to the excellent report published earlier this year by the agency explaining the wide variety of invasive behavior committed by data broker companies you’ve likely never heard of  — but these firms know you. They have probably decided you are an “urban scrambler” with a “diabetes interest.” Brill called for data brokers to fess up about what they do and who they do it for.

The discussion generally felt a bit fatalistic, however. Big data is here to stay, and in fact, it hurts both consumers whose privacy is completely violated by it, and it hurts consumers who are invisible to it.  The only thing worse than having a credit report is not having a credit report, which can prevent you from participating in the American economy at all.

Pam Dixon wrote a report earlier this year called “The Scoring of America,” which described the hundreds of 3-digit numbers that can control every aspect of your life — we’ve moved waaayyyy beyond credit scores. On a panel, she urged a new, broader view of data usage that drew on a long history of data collection stretching back to World War II and the Nuremberg Principles. They call for a clear need to obtain meaningful, informed consent of people when they are subjects of experiments.

That would be hard to do, certainly. But we should try.

When I write about scams, gotchas, and company misbehavior — and often, when I bicker with companies who give some version of an excuse that comes down to, “it’s the consumer’s fault” — I have a simple test I give:

“Are people surprised you took their money? If they are surprised, they you did the wrong thing.”

With data collection, surprise isn’t just an element of a “gotcha.”  Surprise is the product itself.  That’s wrong, and that needs to change.  Without real, informed consent from the public, Big Data collection is a runaway train that is going to do a lot more harm than good.

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About Bob Sullivan 1632 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.