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Tackling the big issues with big data

UOIT prof is searching for solutions in the age of data overload

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It has been labeled as the biggest lie on the Internet, “I have read and agree to these terms and conditions.”

With every account users sign up for, every update to an app, or new software installed, the notification to accept the terms of a privacy agreement comes with it.

Do people read these usually lengthy and jargon filled agreements? Of course not.

However, that could change when Canadians start to realize just how much information they are giving out on a daily basis.

Dr. Jonathan Obar with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology specializes in the study of how these digital technologies impact our freedoms.

“I look at how they can empower us to promote civil liberties and I’m also interested in how they threaten civil liberties,” Obar says.

The reality is, the ever expanding world of “big data” poses newer and expanding opportunities, not all of them good, for how companies, known as data brokers, can use your information.

Through data brokers, insurance companies can get information about your eating habits when assessing you for life insurance or perhaps police can get information on driving habits.

The data is out there, and Obar is searching for a solution.

In an interview with The Express, Obar explained his work, why big data is an increasing problem, and the search for a possible solution.

The problem

Some may ask why does this matter? Who cares if a grocery store is tracking purchases through a membership card? Some may say they’ve got nothing to hide.

“Perhaps you’re not familiar, or aware of what you might want to hide,” Obar says.

For decades, the privacy issue has used George Orwell’s narrative created in his novel 1984 as a comparator.

Simplified, the narrative is that Big Brother, or the government, is always watching and gathering information about us to use to their advantage.

However, Obar says this story is no longer relevant to the reality of the digital world today.

“Things are far more complicated now than George Orwell imagined when he was writing 1984,” Obar says.

Instead of one entity with all the information, the data is spread out in an unknown number of locations.

“If all the data was housed in one place, we would know where to look for it and if we wanted to affect change, we could target our efforts at one place, regulate that one entity,” he says. “The problem is that data is everywhere and not only that the data is everywhere, it’s being used in different ways everywhere.”

The regulations surrounding the gathering and sharing of information are shady at best with little specific requirements for how the information is gathered by companies or where it is shared, Obar says.

In a previous report, Obar and a colleague from the University of Toronto assessed 43 Canadian Internet service providers and found the majority of them tell very little about what they are doing with their customers’ information.

While this is the problem, one the Federal Trade Commission has tried to address and give “digital citizens” increased right to their information, Obar says the solution is far more complicated.

“If we all had access to the data, where would we begin?” he says. The sheer amount of data that exists about us could prove to be overwhelming.

The second problem exists in the form of how this data is used.

“All of this data is being used to generate profiles about people and how risky they are as investments,” Obar says.

For example, data brokers – companies whose sole focus is gathering information and shirking it to clients – can share your unhealthy eating habits with insurance companies.

One way of obtaining that is through the data gathered through the use of a membership card.

“The loyalty programs that these companies have are not about a dollar off milk, it’s about the data,” Obar says.

The solution

In a working paper, soon to be published in Big Data and Society, Obar says the self-management of all this data is impossible.

So Obar suggests that perhaps professionals will be created to deal with that very issue.

“Just like we hire an accountant to help interpret our financial data come tax time, perhaps eventually there will be, what I call, representative data managers,” he says.

This position would be someone who can monitor our data, check where it’s been sent, who is sending it and exactly what it’s being used for.

There’s another problem.

“The big issue is how do you generate demand for these services?” Obar says.

However, a survey done earlier this year by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that a growing number of Canadians are becoming concerned about their privacy online. The survey was done in response to knowledge that one of Canada’s spy agencies, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) – this country’s equivalent of the better known American entity, the NSA – was sifting through millions of downloaded videos and documents to find potential extremists.

As concern for privacy grows, Obar’s suggestion of data managers could become increasingly useful as Canadians realize they are going to need a solution to the big data issue.

 

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