Where To Draw The Line On Big Data Privacy?

As data sharing becomes more common, individual privacy seems to be more luxury than norm. But corporations working with big-data analytics must pay attention to how many personal details they gather about their customers, lest they cross the invisible line of what is acceptable and what is not—and anger their client base.

People working in the sector say that when data is used to provide a valuable service, customers do not mind. “The customers will trust the banks with their information if they value what they get from that. They will have to [make] good use of data if they want customers to trust them and [they want] to retain the customers,” notes Brian McCarthy, managing director, information and analytics strategy, Accenture Analytics.

Customers’ sensibilities vary. ING suffered a backlash in the Netherlands last year when it announced a pilot project to provide discounts to its customers on the basis of their private spending history. The experiment unleashed a public outcry, with hundreds of people on Twitter—along with lawmakers—expressing concerns. Some people initially thought the bank was about to sell data on private transactions—and the misunderstanding made things worse. The program was put on hold, and the bank is now offering a different way to interact with its clients. “Cultural aspects play a role in the extent to which new technologies based on big data are embraced. For instance, in Spain and Romania we have successfully launched services based on customer preferences derived from big data,” notes Frans Middendorff, ING’s press officer.

The questions are likely to evolve with time, as people become increasingly aware of what is in the public domain. “There is a [fine] balance between utility and privacy. It is very hard to be anonymous in a data set,” says Edd Dumbill, vice president, strategy, at Silicon Valley Data Science. “The question is not how we identify you… but [rather] how we use [that information]. The real bargaining about privacy is not that people know about you, but what you get in return for it and how companies use this in a way that does not freak people out. What is a socially accepted behavior?”