Not everything is a cyberattack: Big Data’s top 5 risks

We are generating and more data. By 2013 the Internet —or to be more precise, its users— had generated four zetabytes of information, equal to four billion terabytes. And data growth is exponential, since more and more people are generating data with ever-increasing frequency.

As a result, data has become the “new petroleum”, the fuel that companies use to generate business. They store and interpret the data available on the net to reach more users and offer them more customized products and services, open new markets, test their products, etc., always keeping in mind the power of persuasion of social media.

But as users begin to realize the value of their data, they also become more worried about data security.

We usually think of Internet data security in terms of cyberattacks and security breaches. In fact, last year attacks on digital security did get worse, and so did their consequences. But that’s not all we have to worry about when it comes to massive data storage. What are the risks that Big Data exposes us to?

1. Predictive discrimination

Predictive analysis can be used to make decisions about the suitability of a given user, for example, when hiring for a specific position or issuing a loan or a credit card. In other words, it is used to make decisions, merely on the basis of association, that can affect people negatively.

The risk does not lie in the data themselves, but in the interpretations and/or associations that companies can make, and in decision-making that is automatic or based on questionable criteria. Should users be discriminated against based on a prediction made by a computer algorithm? In this regard, companies will have to make an effort to avoid depersonalizing decisions and to balance predictive analysis with personalized service.

2. Loss of anonymity

It is becoming increasingly difficult for an ordinary user to do anything online without associating the action with his or her identity. Virtually everything we do online requires us to identify ourselves. In fact, it is getting harder and harder for companies to anonymize data in such a way that people cannot be re-identified, since we now generate an enormous amount of data that can be cross-linked and connected.

The key for companies will be to implement security systems that guarantee data privacy and security, and the ability to generate trust on the part of users. And as for the users, they will have to become more educated in how to limit the amount of personal information that they pour into the net.

3. Government use

Governments are storing more and more personal information about citizens: name, race, sex, place and date of birth, Social Security and driver license numbers, photographs, fingerprints, financial information, etc. Even sexual orientation and political affinities.

Although this might not be the top concern of users, the inappropriate use of this information is a real danger in certain countries. Recent cases involving the governments of Russia, China, and Australia are only the tip of the iceberg.

4. The data business

Big Data has generated new business models, including some that are ethically questionable, such as the purchase and sale of data. More and more companies sell segmented data linked to user profiles, allowing the purchasing company to offer highly customized products. As a result, a pregnancy, a person’s sexual orientation, or an illness could be disclosed by the advertising (including unwanted advertising) sent to the person, leaving him or her little room for privacy.

Although Google and other large companies try to implement advertising policies to curb these practices, the fact is that we are increasingly exposed, as are our personal data.

5. Cyberattacks

As we stated at the beginning of this post, this is not the only risk, but it remains at or near the top of the list.

The ever-increasing interconnectivity of data traffic also increases the risk of identity theft, loss, or fraud. In fact, 2017 was an especially critical year for cybersecurity, since the attacks were the most serious we have ever had, with the worst consequences.

But looking at the big picture, Big Data also has its positive side. Greater knowledge of medicine, chemistry, engineering, and other fields is offering progress and improvement in the lives of many people at an unprecedented pace. Digital identity gives visibility to billions of people who would otherwise remain anonymous, making them less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. And for millions of people and companies throughout the world, Big Data offers an economic and development engine whose potential we are only beginning to explore. The responsible use of information, beginning with the amount and type of information that we share with other people, and the responsible and safe use and storage practiced by companies, are what will define the future of Big Data.