Why big data could be crippled by privacy

By the time John McAfee stuck the knife into Google, the stage had long been set for a furore over privacy. Data protection agencies across Europe have been scrutinising data collection for some time, and the Edward Snowden leaks hardly heightened public confidence about the enterprise.

"Google or at least certain people within Google, I will not mention names because I am not a rude gentleman, would like us to believe that if we have nothing to hide we should not mind if everybody knows everything that we do," McAfee said. "I have to take serious issue with that."

He’s not alone. Speaking at the Beyond Tellerrand tech conference in May, web developer Maciej Ceglowski even argued that intrusion was damaging tech’s prospects. "One of the worst aspects of surveillance is how it limits our ability to be creative with technology," he said. "It’s like a tax we all have to pay on innovation. We can’t have cool things, because they’re too potentially invasive."

Ceglowski advocates regulation that will compel firms to delete data after a certain amount of time, in the event of bankruptcy or takeover, and if the customer requests it. It’s an approach that’s likely to find favour among certain civil liberties groups, but it also endangers many of big data’s big plans.

Last month David Richards, co-founder of big data firm WANdisco, told CBR that he saw a continuation of the model in which customers trade their personal data for services. He argued if the value to the customer outweighed the cost of diminishing their privacy, they would do it.

The internet’s history lends this theory some plausibility, but there are many who do not like the trade they are being expected to make, and their criticism that firms take data without informing customers is indisputable. Facebook’s experiment may well have been more mild than many papers reported, but it did indicate a certain attitude common in Silicon Valley.

The sum of these events is a burgeoning hostility to data collection, particularly from European countries where the memory of a powerful secret police is still vivid. German outrage over the news that the Americans were tapping ministerial phones may precipitate a wider backlash against the gains of Google, even if the response to the "right to be forgotten" ruling contests that.

But one thing is clear: the internet is growing up, and the bottom line of tech stands much to lose.

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