Does Big Data Need a Public Marketplace?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Is greater transparency the solution to privacy concerns about the vast amounts of consumer data that companies and other entities are collecting? A recent blog post from business consulting firm Maus Strategic Consulting explored the idea of a privately-held, but publicly regulated clearing house for what is popularly referred to as “Big Data.” As noted by PC Magazine, Big Data is an ambiguous term that has connotations ranging from the innocuous to the sinister. Some may immediately think of Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) collection of information about user’s browsing habits in order to sell targeted advertising. For others, Big Data may evoke thoughts of intrusive government spying programs that were exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

However, for the purposes of Maus Strategic Consulting’s concept of a Big Data market, the firm defined Big Data as the large amounts of useful data that are collected for analysis, especially the data collected on individuals. This would include the big data collections of credit bureaus like Experian, as well as retailers like Target (NYSE:TGT).

As noted by Maus Strategic Consulting, both of those companies were recently involved in serious data breaches. Earlier this year, Target revealed that it compromised as many as 40 million customer’s credit and debit cards as well as the personal data of another 70 million shoppers. Similarly, Experian accidentally sold private customer data to an identity theft service last year, reports KrebsonSecurity. Ironically, as a credit bureau, Experian is supposed to be an expert at preventing data breaches. Since these breaches occurred despite the data being secured within the secretive confines of these companies, Maus Strategic Consulting has proposed bringing the selling, exchanging, and collection of Big Data out into the open.

According to Maus Strategic Consulting’s argument, a regulated Big Data marketplace would allow the companies that profit from Big Data to continue their business, while allowing privacy advocates and civil liberty watchdogs to monitor the information that is being shared. Since many companies try to conceal their private data breaches to avoid embarrassment or liability, a publicly-regulated marketplace would presumably encourage companies to boost their data security, while making any breaches immediately known to the public.

Although many privacy advocates would like to see Big Data collections decrease or even disappear altogether, Maus Strategic Consulting noted that this is simply not a realistic option. Too many large companies have a stake in Big Data and it could be argued that the benefits derived from the analysis of Big Data far outweighs the downsides associated with massive data collections. Privacy advocates are also unlikely to find a sympathetic ear with most politicians. According to a Stanford Law Review article by Daniel Kreiss, both political parties widely use targeted advertising campaigns that rely on information gleaned from Big Data collections.

On the other hand, it is not clear if the public is ready to approve or participate in a centralized Big Data marketplace. Although a publicly regulated Big Data clearing house would supposedly increase accountability and security, the idea of a marketplace that deals exclusively in private data may simply be too creepy for many people and make Big Data seem even more like Big Brother than it already is.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter (@ArnoldEtan_WSCS)

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