Digital Data Privacy – Key Players

The Big Data Show in Dubai in June 2015 turned out to be an inspiring event and a great place to exchange ideas and connect with like-minded data scientists. The Show also made me realize that aside from purely scientific issue how to handle mega-, giga- and terabytes of data, there are also very practical matters surrounding the rise of Big Data, one of which is, what Big Data means in terms of privacy.

Big Data is agnostic to the sensitivity of our digital behavior online and offline; and studies that rely on Big Data analysis are more invasive than any other type of research. The famous study that showcased Target discovering a teenage girl’s pregnancy before her farther did was a perfect example of Big Data invasiveness.

Yet, Target does not carry the blame exclusively. The girl, who used Target loyalty card made a choice that exposed her to the eyes of Big Data miners. Furthermore, the regulatory system has not caught up with the Big Data revolution to define the legal boundaries of Big Data research or to decide if Target acted inappropriately from a legal perspective by unintentionally disclosing to the girl’s father what technically is the girl’s private health matter without her consent.

Overall, it appears that to answer the question of “What does Big Data mean in terms of privacy.” It’s important to look at the roles of the three key players in the issue: the consumer (the one whose data is being mined), the provider (the one who mines the data) and the regulator (the one who is the ultimate oversight).


As noted by Chris O’Hearn of Emirates Measurement Company, in the world of Big Data consumers treat their privacy as a commodity, which they trade for other commodities that are more appealing or more beneficial than privacy. With the consumer it is almost always about the big reward they expect for leaking private data here and there. In this light, the fact that consumers are unwilling to disclose their TV viewing habits to a media monitoring company but are willing to talk about their income and savings to a lender makes a lot of sense: in the first case, their “reward” is more commercial breaks during their favorite shows (who wants that?!) while in the second case, they might receive a loan to start a business, buy a house or improve their life in some other ways (who does not want that?).

However, consumers are not always smart with their private data. By now, there are multiple case studies on young people ruining their careers/marriages/lives by sharing too much on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar social networking sites. Yet, they keep sharing partially because they are comfortable sharing and boasting in a social-networking context, but partially because consumers do not always clearly see the consequences of sharing outside of a well-defined privacy-for-reward context. And, to my mind, that’s where providers and regulators step into the spotlight to play their role as users and protectors of consumers’ privacy.

Product and service providers 

Product and service providers are the key users/miners of Big Data. The main goal of “mining for insights” is two-fold: (a) find new ways to increase repeat customers, “grow” existing customers and win new customers from competitors, i.e., improve customer satisfaction and increase revenue; and (b) find new ways to reduce costs through optimized operations.

Operational mining aside, a large part of consumer behavior insights is based on private information, including financial and health-related data. So, we are in the new space where improving customer satisfaction in one sphere and/or short term might potentially result in harming the customer in other sphere and/or long term, including if providers do not employ sufficient tools to prevent third-parties/hackers from accessing their data storage.

We cannot expect providers to halt their marketing and BD strategies because of the risks related to using Big Data, which are mostly as ephemeral in todays world as the benefits of doing that. But we can expect “smart” future-oriented companies to consider the short-term gains of grab-and-run strategies vs. long-term losses of damaged reputation. We can also expect such “smart” companies to be among those actively working with regulators on developing responsible frameworks to minimize the adversities related to abusive Big Data mining.


I liked the key word Sammar Farooq of Al-Tayer Group used when talking about Big Data regulations was “enablement.” I’ve had conversations with government agencies in a few African countries, where the word “enablement” was the main descriptor of what the governments were trying to achieve when advocating for a new regulation.

Enablement not control is the approach from which the Big Data movement will benefit the most. I look at the Big Data trend as a game, kind of like hide-and-seek or 20 questions or a scavenger hunt. It is tempting to look at games as chaos. However, each game has rules to ensure that everyone can play and everyone enjoys playing. Similarly, Big Data regulations should be in place to enable discovery in which the freedom of one player is respectful of the enjoyment of another player. Otherwise some players will quit, and the game will stop for everyone.

The Big Data space is equally new for consumers, providers and regulators. Nobody is completely clear what it all means, although there are some indications that “big good” and “big bad” are two equally possible outcomes. Hence it is up for all the players involved to be a part of the solution and educate themselves and others about the game, join forces in writing fair rules and try to stick to them.