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‘Big data’ is the black gold of today. It’s time for politicians to catch up

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Big data is the oil of the future

Some revolutions are the outcome of intense, heated debate, or sudden, abrupt shifts in power; they represent obvious, spectacular turning points in human history. Others just sneak up on us: we know something important is going on, but don’t realise just how dramatically the world has already changed until it is almost too late.

“Big data”, a perfect example of the latter, is going to be a fantastic boon. Compiled from the digital trail left by web searches, credit card payments and smartphones, it will transform productivity and consumer choice, and kick-start Western economies that have been in a rut for the best part of a decade. It will drive dramatic improvements in healthcare, education and mobility, and allow us to live longer and better lives. But, like all great breakthroughs, it comes with immense dangers.

If not managed carefully, the ever-more sophisticated mapping of every last piece of our personal information will herald not just the death of privacy but also allow rogues to destroy lives by falsifying data. It will facilitate cyber‑terrorism and, in some parts of the world, the persecution of minorities and dissidents. Even in the most liberal of democracies, it will hand vast powers to officials. It will reset the relationship between consumers and very large US tech businesses, some of which are now openly embracing political activism.

This requires a major shift in legal thinking akin to the strengthening of intellectual property rights prior to and during the Industrial Revolution, or the emergence of new forms of international law in the 20th century. We need to reach a new political settlement, perhaps in the form of a Bill of Digital Rights. This effort will need to go much farther than cracking down on criminal material, however much that is also needed.

At the very least, we will need clearly to establish property rights in data and all categories of personal information: ideally, individuals should retain ownership of their information, and perhaps even of their social connections, and should have the right to delete some or all.

Their relationship with big companies such as Facebook and Google should be purely transactional and time-limited: data are temporarily shared, in return for something (in this case, a free service). It may be that we could even move to a world where customers are free to move all of their data, emails and social connections – their entire digital identities – to a different company whenever they wish to do so, just like we can now port our phone number from one company to the next.

There will also need to be opt-outs: individuals should have the right to anonymity as long as they understand that this means no longer enjoying access to free services or tailored commercial offers.

The launch this week of a new Apple iPhone that relies on facial-recognition technology, rather than a PIN or fingerprint, to unlock the device, was a seminal moment. Apple is a responsible company that genuinely believes in the privacy of its users: it will store people’s faces locally on its smartphones, in the most secure way possible.

But we are now only a few years away from the day when facial recognition technology will be sufficiently advanced that, whenever we walk down a street, networks of CCTV cameras, public as well as private, will immediately recognise us. Databases of people’s faces will be created and used for commercial as well as law and order purposes.

We can already be tracked from our smartphones, of course, and willingly give up our location and vast amounts of other information. But at some point, perhaps after a major cyber‑hack, the public will begin to rebel, as has already happened in Germany and other countries.

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