Jan 2018, Vol 19, No 2
How can individuals be protected when their personal data is constantly being collected for uses that may not be apparent until some future date? And when it may not be obvious who is collecting that data?
As giants like Google, Facebook, WeChat and Alibaba track their users every minute of the day, these questions are rising high on government agendas around the world. In little more than a decade, most people now share personal information in order to gain access to services – whether socialising, shopping, seeking entertainment, or checking up on their health. Even our whereabouts can be tracked at every moment if the location service on our phones is turned on.
That goldmine of information is being used by both businesses and governments to make decisions about individuals and groups, such as how much to charge certain users for services, whether to deny them access and what trends are revealed by their data. And therein lie several problems.
First, the story told by big data may not be an accurate one. Professor John Bacon-Shone of the Faculty of Social Sciences, a statistician with an interest in big data and privacy who also advises the Hong Kong Government on the issues, cites the example of the Google Flu Trends web service which aggregated search queries about flu to predict outbreaks. “The problem is, it’s just an association, not causation, and it doesn’t work well at prediction. If you have a different type of flu, the whole thing falls apart,” he said...
Personal data protection laws typically require banks and other institutions to keep accurate up-to-date information and disclose how it will be used. But when the technology is changing rapidly, with new and unanticipated uses becoming possible, this may no longer be sufficient.
Professor Anne SY Cheung of the Faculty of Law has been studying privacy and personal data protection and is co-editor of the 2015 book Privacy and Legal Issues in Cloud Computing. “Recent legal reforms and position papers from the European Union (EU), the UK and the US have raised concerns about the problem of profiling, predictive decisions and discrimination, and the harm that may result from that. This is because the use of big data is very different from our traditional understanding of how to regulate personal data.
“The traditional approach is essentially one of notice and consent: the collection of personal data is allowed only for a specific and limited purpose. But in the age of big data, the more data one has, the more accurate and arguably useful one’s conclusions will be. So the collector tries to collect as much data as possible and only after they have it and have done their analysis, will they find correlations and identify the purpose,” she said...
China: Big data, big brother?
The use of big data in China is of an altogether different level of concern from commercial uses of personal information. The central government is in the process of rolling out a social credit system that draws on big data to rate each individual's reputation based on their political leanings, purchase history, social interactions and other factors.
"China is like a big data laboratory," said Professor Cheung, who has been studying the situation there with colleague Dr Clement Chen. "Arguably, there is 360-degree surveillance watching individuals and gathering data. They have real-name registration [for mobile and internet services] and close connections between the government and the banking system and internet companies"... Click here to read the full article.