Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“Rethinking Privacy in an Era of Big Data”

June 5th, 2012 / in big science, conference reports, policy, research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

danah boyd studies privacy and children’s use of social media [image courtesy Erik Jacobs/The New York Times].Last week, the UC Berkeley’s School of Information held a forum — called the DataEDGE Conference — seeking to explore the challenges and opportunities associated with the transition to a data-intensive economy. One of the speakers was danah boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research and an Assistant Professor at New York University, who discussed the implications of Big Data on privacy — and the role for researchers and technologists moving forward.

The New York Times Bits Blog has coverage of boyd’s talk:

“Privacy is a source of tremendous tension and anxiety in Big Data,” says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. Speaking last week at a conference on Big Data at the University of California, Berkeley, she said, “It’s a general anxiety that you can’t pinpoint, this odd moment of creepiness.” She asked, “Is this moving towards a society that we want to build?”


If conventional understanding chafes at the idea that our names are mere noise, consider the challenge in Ms. Boyd’s point about the self in a highly networked society. Take personal genetic data. “If I give away data to 23andMe, I’m giving away some of my brother’s data, my mother’s data, my future kid’s data.” For that matter, “Who owns the e-mail chain between you and me?”


Privacy is not a universal or timeless quality. It is redefined by who one is talking to, or by the expectations of the larger society. In some countries, a woman’s ankle is a private matter; in some times and places, sexual orientations away from the norm are deeply private, or publicly celebrated. Privacy, Ms. Boyd notes, is not the same as security or anonymity. It is an ability to have control over one’s definition within an environment that is fully understood. Something, arguably, no one has anymore.


“Defaults around how we interact have changed,” she said. “A conversation in the hallway is private by default, public by effort. Online, our interactions become public by default, private by effort.”


There [are] other ways in which we can lose control of our privacy now. By triangulating different sets of data (you are suddenly asking lots of people on LinkedIn for endorsements on you as a worker, and on Foursquare you seem to be checking in at midday near a competitor’s location), people can now conclude things about you (you’re probably interviewing for a job there) that are radically different from either set of public information.


What is to be done? Ms. Boyd has made a specialty of studying young people’s behavior on the Internet. She says they are now often seeking power over their environment through misdirection, such as continually making and destroying Facebook accounts, or steganography, a cryptographic term for hiding things in plain sight by obscuring their true meaning. “Someone writes, ‘I’m sick and tired of all this,’ and it gets ‘liked’ by 32 people,” she said. “When I started doing my fieldwork I could tell you what people were talking about. Now I can’t.”


That is a placeholder solution, and Ms. Boyd sees only one certainty for which we should prepare. “Regulation is coming,” she says. “You may not like it, you may close your eyes and hold your nose, but it is coming.”


The issue is what the regulation looks like, and how well it is considered. “Technologists need to re-engage with regulators,” she says. “We need to get to a model where we really understand usage.” Right now, even among the highest geek circles, “we have very low levels of computational literacy, data literacy, media literacy, and all of these are contributing to the fears.”

Check out the full story here — and read more about the DataEDGE Conference in a related post on the Bits Blog.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

“Rethinking Privacy in an Era of Big Data”
  • Yes. In the end, consumers will catch on and Big Data triangulation will be nullified by Big Data Pollution by users. As to private and public data, only when the citizens have as much data on the data colletors as the data collectors have on the citizens will we be free. Even more perverse is Disqus’s access to Yahoo contacts and status updates when you post here using Disqus.