TED Talks are a very large collection of 15-minute presentations from various experts around the world on just about any topic you can think of — and many that you could not. TED is a non-profit which organizes and hosts a variety of speakers from all walks of life.
Recently, TED hosted a series of talks called “The Dark Side of Data” in which different speakers explained how Big Data can be a force for good, and how it can be abused. Alessandro Acquisti, who studies the economics of privacy and information security in social networks, gave a talk called “Why Privacy Matters.” You can watch his talk here.
Our Public and Private Lives Have Merged
In his talk, Acquisti explained how the line between our public and private lives has become more and more blurred over the last decade.
There has been a remarkable shift in how we share our private lives with others in a relatively short amount of time. Big corporations harvest vast amounts of data on us through tracking our online behavior. Big data does provide some benefits to us such as targeted ads, free content and free software, but many of us don’t understand how any personal information can be sensitive information.
In 2010, over 2.5 billion photos were uploaded to Facebook in a single month, and many of the individuals in these photos have been identified and tracked by facial recognition software. In addition, the rise of cloud computing has made storage of large amounts of data available to nearly everyone.
Acquisti described a study he led in which he took digital pictures of people he met on the street. He was able to use facial recognition software to link this picture to Facebook, and thus find out the person’s identity.
Using publicly available information, Acquisti was able to eventually find out the Social Security number for many of the strangers he met. All he needed was a digital photo and access to Big Data. He was even able to develop an app which downloaded this information to his smartphone.
A Future without Secrets
If in the near future, people will be able to use just a few online data points to find out everything about you, what will this future look like?
Corporations will use the information they gather in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Worse, the current policies we have to safeguard our data are ineffective at best.
Transparency is a step in the right direction, but if that transparency is not matched with an explanation on how Big Data uses our information, most of us won’t understand why we need to safeguard it.
While the future of our privacy looks gloomy, there is an alternative. There is technology that exists today that protects our privacy as we do virtually anything online. A personal VPN is one important component.
Privacy is both the means and the price to pay for freedom. Technology, and the collection of personal information, has provided many good things for us, but it remains to be seen if this will ultimately be a net benefit or a corrosive element in our lives.