Big Data’s Privacy Challenge

By TAP Guest Blogger

Posted on June 22, 2012


by Jules Polonetsky and Omer Tene

When it comes to utilizing big data, critics are quick to point out that the more data collected, stored and analyzed, the greater the risk of security breaches and privacy violations. While advancements in data mining and analytics threaten to levy a price on individual privacy, they also deliver societally beneficial results. A recent breakthrough proved the life-saving benefits of this resource.


Using data mining techniques to identify patterns in large datasets, Dr. Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and his colleagues made a groundbreaking discovery last year. They found that when taken together, Paxil, the blockbuster antidepressant prescribed to millions of Americans, and Pravachol, a hugely popular cholesterol-reducing drug, have a nasty side effect. They increase patients’ blood glucose to diabetic levels.


How was this discovered? First, the researchers used data mining to unearth hidden correlations in an adverse effects reporting database maintained by the FDA. Then, in collaboration with Microsoft research, Altman and his colleagues examined de-identified Bing search engine logs and found that a much higher proportion of users typed in Paxil and Pravachol together with diabetes related words, than just Paxil or Pravachol separately.


Nearly 15 million Americans take either Paxil or Pravachol and an estimated one million take both. For these users, the work of Altman and his colleagues was potentially life-saving.


This is just one example of the societal benefits of data mining and analysis. Common areas for data innovation include detecting credit card fraud, measuring the effectiveness of advertising and tracking energy consumption via the smart grid. New areas are being tapped by mathematicians who seek insights in the digital breadcrumbs we leave behind as we navigate today’s interconnected world. The benefits accrue not only to business but also to government, consumers, the environment and society as a whole.


At the same time, measures to limit data collection and require user consent continue to advance, particularly in the European Union where a proposed new regulation would impose far ranging restrictions on data use. Missteps by tech giants as well as by start-up app developers have enraged consumers who continue to embrace the latest devices but express an increasing unease with the loss of control over their data.


The Obama Administration recently presented its privacy initiative based on a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights; a co-regulatory model of industry codes of conduct enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. The Obama plan seeks to preserve innovative uses of data while putting in place privacy protections and providing consumer choice in select areas. Those at the table should keep in mind valuable data uses such as those by Altman and his team. Privacy and big data are not mutually exclusive; policymakers should seek to minimize privacy risks while at the same time preserving big data’s rewards.

Jules Polonetsky is the Director and Co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that seeks to advance responsible data practices. He formerly served as AOL’s Chief Privacy Officer and SVP for Consumer Advocacy.

Omer Tene is a Senior Fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum and an Associate Professor at the College of Management Haim Striks School of Law.