IN the 1960s, mainframe computers posed a significant technological challenge to common notions of privacy. That’s when the federal government started putting tax returns into those giant machines, and consumer credit bureaus began building databases containing the personal financial information of millions of Americans. Many people feared that the new computerized databanks would be put in the service of an intrusive corporate or government Big Brother.
“It really freaked people out,” says Daniel J. Weitzner, a former senior Internet policy official in the Obama administration. “The people who cared about privacy were every bit as worried as we are now.”
Along with fueling privacy concerns, of course, the mainframes helped prompt the growth and innovation that we have come to associate with the computer age. Today, many experts predict that the next wave will be driven by technologies that fly under the banner of Big Data — data including Web pages, browsing habits, sensor signals, smartphone location trails and genomic information, combined with clever software to make sense of it all.
Proponents of this new technology say it is allowing us to see and measure things as never before — much as the microscope allowed scientists to examine the mysteries of life at the cellular level. Big Data, they say, will open the door to making smarter decisions in every field from business and biology to public health and energy conservation.
But the latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy — an issue so crucial that it could trump all others and upset the Big Data bandwagon. Dr. Pentland is a champion of the Big Data vision and believes the future will be a data-driven society. Yet the surveillance possibilities of the technology, he acknowledges, could leave George Orwell in the dust.
The World Economic Forum published a report late last month that offered one path — one that leans heavily on technology to protect privacy. The report grew out of a series of workshops on privacy held over the last year, sponsored by the forum and attended by government officials and privacy advocates, as well as business executives. The corporate members, more than others, shaped the final document.
The report, “Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage,” recommends a major shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use of data. Curbs on the use of personal data, combined with new technological options, can give individuals control of their own information, according to the report, while permitting important data assets to flow relatively freely.
The report contains echoes of earlier times. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, passed in 1970, was the main response to the mainframe privacy challenge. The law permitted the collection of personal financial information by the credit bureaus, but restricted its use mainly to three areas: credit, insurance and employment.
The forum report suggests a future in which all collected data would be tagged with software code that included an individual’s preferences for how his or her data is used. All uses of data would have to be registered, and there would be penalties for violators. For example, one violation might be a smartphone application that stored more data than is necessary for a registered service like a smartphone game or a restaurant finder.
The corporate members of the forum say they recognize the need to address privacy concerns if useful data is going to keep flowing. George C. Halvorson, chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, the large health care provider, extols the benefits of its growing database on nine million patients, tracking treatments and outcomes to improve care, especially in managing costly chronic and debilitating conditions like heart disease, diabetes and depression. New smartphone applications, he says, promise further gains — for example, a person with a history of depression whose movement patterns slowed sharply would get a check-in call.
“We’re on the cusp of a golden age of medical science and care delivery,” Mr. Halvorson says. “But a privacy backlash could cripple progress.”