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ATPM 18.05
May 2012





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Book Review

by Sylvester Roque,

Privacy and Big Data: The Players, Regulators, and Stakeholders


Author: Terrance Craig & Mary E. Ludloff.

Developer: O’Reilly.

Price: $17 (Daisy, ePub, Mobi, PDF e-book); $20(print); $22 (print and Daisy, ePub, Mobi, PDF e-book).

Trial: Cover, description, and table of contents.

I’ve been surfing the Internet since the days of AOL. InfoSeek, AltaVista, and other search engines were in my digital toolbox long before Google became a household word, noun, and synonym for search all rolled up into one package. There was probably a time when I expected a certain degree of privacy in my digital travels. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure there ever was much anonymity. Can’t find someone or something you need? Check the Internet; it’s probably there. That’s the big selling point right? Everything’s connected to everything else.

If I ever expected digital anonymity, I know when that expectation changed a bit. Within a few months of writing my ATPM column I received an e-mail in my staff mailbox from someone I met while in graduate school. He wondered if I was the same Sylvester Roque he had met in school several years before. After a few e-mails back and forth, the topic turned to how he had located me since we hadn’t been in contact for several years. He’d simply searched for my name, saw the byline on one of my articles, and concluded that given the unusual last name it had to be the same person.

That relatively benign incident was almost forgotten until a number of incidents occurred such as this one where the content of someone’s social media page had become an issue in their firing. I’d even seen recent reports of potential employers asking potential hires for their Facebook credentials. Since I was already thinking about these issues, I jumped at the chance to review Craig and Ludloff’s Privacy and Big Data.

What’s It All About

As the authors note on the back cover of the book “[t]hrough our online activities, we leave an easy-to-follow trail of digital footprints that reveal who we are, what we buy, where we go, and much more.”

Almost from the beginning, many Web sites tracked where users were going on a site. That level of data collection is positively prehistoric by modern standards. The authors endeavor to provide an overview of who’s collecting data, what data is being collected, and what’s being done with all that information.

Interwoven throughout the discussion of modern data collection is the recurring theme of privacy. A battle of sorts is going on over “big data” and what’s to be done with it. The “big data” in question is all the information collected about us, our travels, and our habits. Information is being gathered on almost every aspect of our lives. How much information are we willing to give away out of necessity or in exchange for a service? Just what should we be allowed to keep to ourselves?

The Stakeholders and What’s at Stake

Early on, the authors introduce us to the players in this high-stakes game. These are the people with an interest in our “big data.” Some of these groups are well-known to us, and others are maybe not so well-known. Their definitions of the stakeholders include:

Collectors include social network titans that collect, share, and sell (emphasis mine) user data. Collectors also include the information-gathering devices we interact with daily: security cameras, smartphones, RFID tags, etc.

Users include the marketing organizations, government agencies, and others who use the data that’s generated.

Data markets are the companies and agencies that aggregate and sell data to anyone.

Regulators are the policymakers and trade associations charged with developing and enforcing privacy policies.

Some of our data is given to collectors in exchange for free or almost free use of some services. Some of the data is collected surreptitiously or in response to government requests. Everything from commerce to romance seems to involve some transaction of information. How many of us actually bother to read and understand those privacy agreements or have time to do so?

All this data collecting isn’t just a fun exercise. It’s aggregated and disaggregated in various ways and sold to those who want to market something to us. The authors point out that targeted marketing is not new. I remember being amazed a few years ago when I read about the US Postal Service selling change of address lists to marketers. It’s just easier to do in the digital age. Craig and Ludloff frame this discussion as a debate about how our personal information is collected and used for commercial and political purposes. Although a little bit of time is devoted to the use of big data in highly targeted advertising campaigns (behavioral advertising), the focus of debate is on the less benign ways this data is aggregated and used.

Who’s Minding the Store?

Just what’s meant by “privacy”? Just as importantly: is someone guarding it or must we fend for ourselves? Chapters two and three attempt to provide some clarification about these issues. Chapter two is an overview of past and current privacy laws. The focus is primarily on the US and European Union, but China and the Middle East are also mentioned briefly. Don’t worry. You won’t have to go to law school to understand this chapter. It’s more an outline of the basic legal principles that have shaped privacy law.

Chapter three examines the regulators charged with enforcing privacy laws. Again, the US and EU approaches are compared. The authors suggest that surveillance, censorship, and the collection and monitoring of personal data is on the rise worldwide. A brief mention is made of the fact that some countries have restricted access to the Internet and social media in times of political stress.

Commodity or Basic Human Right

Chapter four is devoted to a bit more thorough discussion of issues surrounding digital advertising and attempts to enforce intellectual property rights. From the earliest AT&T banner ads in 1994 to the sophisticated Internet advertising of today, someone’s been tracking our movements and transactions in the digital universe. Fortunately, this section does not get bogged down in the differences among cookies, flash beacons, super cookies, and history tweaking. If you want to delve that deeply into things, there are references throughout the book.

For the authors, the heart of the debate is whether privacy is treated as property or as a basic human right. If it is property, then you have the right to trade it for something of value to you, such as access to social networking sites. The catch is that once we have made the trade, we can probably no longer expect that the information will remain private. If privacy is a basic human right, then it can be argued that you have reasonable expectation that the information will not be misused.

One of the issues discussed at this point is whether digital privacy is in any way similar to our expectation of physical privacy. The example here is attempts to enforce intellectual property rights. When Amazon discovered, for example, that it did not have the proper rights to make two George Orwell books available to Kindle owners, did Amazon have the right to automatically delete those books if Kindle owners had already paid for them? Had these been physical books, getting them back would not have been so easy. It certainly would have involved notifying customers and may quite possibly have required legal action if a customer had refused to comply.

The final chapter is essentially a summation of the issues raised in the book. If you’re looking for specific privacy recommendations, you won’t really find them here. Craig and Ludloff remind us that in some ways we have come full circle. From our earliest history when man functioned in small groups where there was little privacy, we moved to a period of more isolation and privacy. In the digital age much of that privacy is being erased. The best we can do is remember that once data is out there it’s hard to control.

Final Thoughts

Craig and Ludloff have given us an insider’s view of sorts into the data collectors. As executives of a startup company in the big data industry, they have first-hand knowledge of the data being gathered and the analytics being used. Who better to start a discussion of privacy in the information age?

If you are looking for specific recommendations about protecting your privacy online, you’ll have to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you haven’t been thinking much about how much data is being collected about you, this book is a good overview. It doesn’t get bogged down in the technicalities, though the references are there if you care to follow them. If you think that will be of interest to you, it might be easier to use one of the electronic versions to follow the links more easily. Some of them are rather long and would be difficult to type in from the paperback. This book is easy to read, and the information is well-presented. Overall it is a Very Nice addition to your library. I did find myself wishing that they had included specifics on protecting privacy, though.

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