When does big data become too Big Brother?

There are incredible opportunities for government to improve service delivery by getting a better grasp of unstructured information, but privacy concerns abound

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Big data isn’t exactly a new concept for government. The public sector has always dealt with vast amounts of information, from health records to income tax documents to census forms.

But data keeps growing. And these days, it includes both structured (forms and records) and unstructured (emails and tweets) data, which is increasingly difficult to manage and glean insight from.

The private sector has jumped onboard the big data bandwagon, using analytic and predictive modeling tools to help gain insight into customers, provide targeted offers and even increase margins.

The public sector, however, has been slower to jump on the bandwagon. It makes sense — governments may have data centres upon data centres of data, but they tend to have limited resources. And then there’s the issue of Big Brother.

Big data involves analyzing vast amounts of structured and unstructured data to detect trends and even predict behaviours. This data can come from anywhere — a web browser, a mobile phone or even the checkout aisle of a grocery store.

For the private sector, gleaning insight into customers makes sense from a competitive perspective. But what about government? The driver is different — it’s more about better serving citizens. But it could also lead to productivity gains that save taxpayer dollars.

The downside is the public perception that big data will lead to Big Brother. It’s not surprising that many citizens are sensitive to how their data is being used by the government — consider the recent revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency was perusing millions of customer phone records at Verizon Communications, as well as digital communications from nine Internet service providers.

Allegations of using this data to spy on American citizens (as well as foreigners on foreign soil) have clearly given big data a bad rap in some circles.

Here in Canada, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian recently stated in a report that mass metadata collection violates every individual’s right to privacy. She said it’s crucial that information-sharing regimes do not undermine the independent oversight that secures our shared rights to privacy, freedom and security.

In the private sector, privacy is perhaps less of an issue because businesses don’t want to share their customer data with competitors. In the public sector, however, governments will need to share data across departments, agencies and various levels of government.http://www.priv.gc.ca/index_e.asp

The public sector collects data on citizens for legitimate reasons. But, when it comes to harnessing the power of big data, there’s a crucial need to build in checks and balances — and there’s a big role for the federal and provincial privacy commissions to play here.

In the private sector, it’s clear who owns the data. Not so in the public sector. That means along with the need to update infrastructure and deploy analytic tools to accommodate big data comes the need to develop management and accountability frameworks.

Big data may sound like a big headache, but think of it this way: All of this data is just sitting around in a database somewhere, when instead it could be used for insight and innovation — from tracking flu outbreaks to identifying fraudsters who abuse social programs.

That’s not to diminish privacy concerns — those are legitimate. Collecting big data is one thing, but managing it responsibly is another. But it doesn’t have to turn into a scenario from 1984 — with the right approach governments have big opportunities with big data.

Learn more by downloading the white paper, ‘Getting a handle on big data doesn’t have to be a big headache,’ from Allstream. 



Image courtesy of photoexplorer at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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