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Era of Online Sharing Offers Benefits of ‘Big Data,’ Privacy Trade-Offs

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Revelations about the NSA's secret programs have reinforced a national interest in striking a balance between privacy and security. Jeffrey Brown examines public perception of data monitoring with Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, Kashmir Hill of Forbes and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, co-author of "Big Data."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we come back to the surveillance story. Just how much information do we routinely disclose about ourselves online? And how do we feel about that?

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’re joined by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. He is co-author of the new book “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.” Kashmir Hill is a senior online editor and writes the technology and privacy column “Not-So Private Parts” at Forbes.com. And Jules Polonetsky is director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that promotes responsible data practices.

Well, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, I want to start with you. Before we get to the NSA explicitly, I would like you to describe briefly the world of big data that you have been writing about. What does it mean? How and where does it affect all of us?

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER, Co-Author, “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think”: Well, big data is our ability to really see at a large scale what we couldn’t see at a small scale.

And big data is all around us. If we search online with Google, that’s big data. If we ask Siri on our iPhone, that’s big data. The book recommendations on Amazon, the video recommendations on Netflix, that’s big data. If Bing Travel tells us whether or not a ticket price goes up or down most likely over the next couple of days, that’s big data.

But it goes beyond the Internet companies. We see it when airlines that make predictive repair and maintenance on their jet engines or when inflation rates are being announced almost in real time, not by government officials, but by a startup company out of Boston that monitors online price data points. So, big data is really everywhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Kashmir Hill, we have talked on this show at different times about this issue, privacy issue, in the context of Facebook, Google various — various times. How much do you think people are aware of this big data world that we’re talking about?

KASHMIR HILL, Senior Online Editor, Forbes.com: I think people are thinking about this a lot these days, and privacy has become something very interesting to people, in part I think because they’re on Facebook and they’re sharing so much information.

And everyone has a smartphone and they’re downloading apps that are sharing a lot of information about them, from where they are, their location information, to who their contacts are. So I think people are thinking about it a lot. But a lot of people are also aware of the benefits of big data.

So I think people are often giving up that information knowing that they’re going to get something in return. So there’s a lot to think about right now in terms of if the trade-offs are worth it and when it’s too privacy-invasive for people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jules Polonetsky, pick up on that. Continue, because there are pluses, there are minuses. Have you seen an evolution in how much people are even aware and responding to what’s around them?

JULES POLONETSKY, Director, Future of Privacy Forum: People are clearly aware, but they don’t always think about in the terms of data or privacy.

All they know is Amazon recommended a book and it turns out it seems to be based on what other people are buying, and they kind of like that. They like that Netflix can recommend and make their queue easier and smarter.

But when you sit back and you say, well, do you like it that everybody knows everything about you, well, then that sounds a bit scary. And so I think the challenge is, how do we get the benefits? How do we solve diseases because we’re better able to analyze lots of health data? How do we figure out what schools are really working by analyzing what actually works for particular students?

All of those things are going to perhaps make our planet smarter, the way IBM sometimes argues smarter planet. But every one of those …

JEFFREY BROWN: In the best of all worlds.

JULES POLONETSKY: In the best.

But each of those things can also come with a big negative. Will people profile you, discriminate against you? Will the government predict that you’re going to be a criminal in a way that frightens people? So we have to get this balance between big data and big risk right, or we’re in for a lot of debates for the next couple of years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, just so — so now to bring in the NSA revelations, we see these — this polling data right afterward that at least suggests that a majority of Americans are relatively comfortable with what’s going on. How do you fit that into the kinds of concerns we’re talking about?

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Well, I think we don’t know all the facts yet.

And I think the American public is just making up its mind right now. A significant portion may be comfortable now, but as more information becomes available, that might shift. The situation is still fluid. And I have seen a survey that said that about 40 percent of the people in the United States are uncomfortable.

What really this points towards is that this is early days and what we need to have is a public debate about the pros and cons, as Jules said, and that public debate could be the positive outcome of that NSA situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to stay with you for a moment, you have been looking at this for many years. Are you sanguine? Are you concerned? Are you coming out on one side or the other?

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER: I am quite concerned, but I’m not so much concerned about the surveillance aspect than about how big data can be abused for predictions, predictions about future behavior.

And if we use these predictions to then punish people, to penalize them, not for what they have done, but what they’re only predicted to do, then we are on a slippery slope towards “Minority Report,” and that keeps me up at night.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Minority Report” meaning the old movie that showed data coming into our lives, right?

Kashmir, let me ask you, how much of this do you think is generational? Because it’s often talked about younger people who are coming up in a world where they just live online and they’re very comfortable giving out a lot of data.

KASHMIR HILL: One thing that’s been interesting to see as this plays out — there’s always will be all these different polls, and some say that young people care less about privacy and others say that they care more.

But what’s been interesting about what we’re learning about the NSA is some people are shocked by it, but some people have been told for so long that everything we do is tracked, we’re giving out all of this information in the way that we live today when we walk around with a smartphone that is tracking us all the time, and we create these dossiers about ourselves on Facebook, that it seems that some people are just used to this and aren’t as surprised because they thought it was happening already.

So it’s interesting kind of what happens in terms of expectation of privacy, as you tell people over and over again they have no privacy and then when it’s confirmed, they’re not — they’re not surprised by it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s an interesting way of thinking about it, Jules Polonetsky.

Is there a difference when it’s national security, as opposed to Amazon telling me what book I might want?

JULES POLONETSKY: The same solution, frankly, is needed in both these areas. And that’s transparency.

The companies say, trust us, we just want to sell you stuff, you have nothing to worry about. The government says, trust us, we’re just trying to catch terrorists. But you know what? This is too important to just trust. And we might trust today’s government, and who knows what happens tomorrow? So we need transparency.

We need to know that someone is watching the watchers. Finally, the civil liberties board has been appointed and they’re going to be taking a look into this. The Obama administration has a bunch of open chief privacy officer roles that need to be filled at the Department of Justice, at Homeland Security.

We need to know that if data is being collected for terrorism or if it’s being collected to invent the next great new product that there are people scrutinizing, humans, not just predicting who the next criminal is, but scrutinizing and making sure that the risks are being minimized and avoided.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see, briefly, that — any signs that the public is where things are going, public pushing back against privacy concerns or getting more comfortable?

JULES POLONETSKY: I think we have been seeing — you know, this is obviously a great explosion, but we have seen pushback when Facebook has made moves that the public didn’t like, when Amazon has made moves, when Apple’s made moves.

We haven’t seen this giant uprising of people debating and calling Congress. But I think consumers in this day and age have the tools to make quick decisions, and, if companies aren’t careful, they will be making them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly from you, Victor Mayer-Schonberger, same question. Do you see any beginnings of a pushback or are people getting more comfortable?

VIKTOR MAYER-SCHONBERGER: Well, just the sheer fact that Google and Facebook and Microsoft were so quickly reacting to this situation by announcing that they want the federal government to permit them to make public the numbers — the number of times they had given access to government agencies shows that these companies really care about consumer trust and they care about losing that.

They’re afraid of losing that. And that shows to me that trust is brittle. And if it is not maintained, if it is not cared for, it may erode very quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Jules Polonetsky and Kashmir Hill, thank you, all three.