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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Corliss Tech Review Group: Our privacy is on the line in age of big data

Give the White House credit. It is trying to keep an important issue before the eyes of the public. OK, this one does not deal with Benghazi or Obamacare. But in the long term, it will probably be even more important. The topic is big data.

The White House issued two well-thought out reports last week, one on the ethical ramifications and another on the technical aspects of big data in our lives. The topic did not gather a lot of press coverage, probably because it is not as sexy as other issues. In addition, it did not draw a lot of attention. It is one of those issues that simmers, rather than boils.

Big data is the gathering of massive amounts of information from all kinds of sources, from bridge crossings to online purchases to Internet searches to tweets and phone calls to bank records. You name it. With the new power of computers, all of those data points can be quickly analyzed and directed to detect patterns. The problem is that some of these patterns tell too much about our personal lives and leave us open to exploitation.

The analysts may be the National Security Agency or your friendly broadband company. It can even be that ice cream store down the street. The records of how many raspberry ice cream cones you bought or which movies you watched on cable are being recorded and analyzed. The NSA wants to predict the likelihood of terrorists living next store. The grocery store wants to predict what soda you will buy and what it will take to make you buy more.

The White House reports were based on a series of conferences with experts from various fields. The experts lauded the potential for good that big data can bring us, but they also warned of dangers.

Among the positives that big data can bring us: Medicare and Medicaid searching records and decoding fraud. That has the potential of saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Locally, the New Castle County police department uses big data analysis to track reported crimes, from the most dangerous to the trivial. The patterns that emerge can help direct the location of officers and thus lead to a decrease in crime. Many cities around the country use big data analysis to track and predict locations of violent crime. Wilmington should take note.

On the other hand, government agencies like the NSA know our comings and goings, who we talked to on the phone and what messages we sent online. Delaware police agencies, like those across the nation, have large libraries of digital photos of car license plates as the cars moved intersections. Storage of those images can be harnessed to powerful computer programs to detect and track the movement of cars. We would be foolish if we believe that there will never be a breach of trust in guarding that information.

The White House's experts echoed that warning.

Big data will be both a blessing and a curse in the years to come. How we respond to warnings, like those from the White House, will determine which comes out on top.

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