Can we desist from using big data?

Posted on December 25, 2014  /  1 Comments

Reading the interview with Viktor Mayer-Schonberger from which the quotation below is taken, I was reminded of an exchange we had in Doha earlier this month, at ITU Telecom World.

What do you have to say to those who are still unsure about ‘Big Data’?

To them I say: The only way that you can be in power and not be ‘controlled’ by data is to first understand its power and then use it to your own advantage. Otherwise, you will always be at the receiving end in the balance of power between the ‘big guys’ who analyse data and the ‘every man’ who supplies data – whether consciously or inadvertently.

The question was from Dr Shiv Bakhshi, now with Ericsson and whose association with me goes back to the 1990s. He asked whether the ability of mobile big data to identify pockets of poverty (something Josh Blumenstock had demonstrated was possible during his presentation) would be used to discriminate against (or “redline” in American parlance) poor people, for example by not locating 4G base stations in such areas. Josh gave an answer on the lines of the quotation above. Yes, data will be used to discriminate, but isn’t it better that we know the basis of discrimination, so that it can be challenged?

But Shiv persisted. He wanted me, the moderator, to respond too. My response was based on this paragraph I had written in the draft guidelines for the use of mobile network big data for public purposes:

It is critically important, however, to recognize the dangers associated with safeguarding “collective privacy” or “group privacy” . . .. First, these concepts have been rarely discussed in the scholarly literature. Second, a prejudice against group attributes would pretty much put an end to social science and to efforts to improve the functioning of society in systematic, evidence-based ways. For example, it is routine to associate various characteristics or behaviors with persons living in geographical areas (e.g., rural areas, cities), by age group and gender and so on. It is not only routine but considered desirable to “target” various policy measures to specific groups. Without group identification it will be impossible for modern societies to function. This is possibly the reason why safeguards against group identification do not exist.

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