Speed Scholarship Week Day 2: Big Data and Privacy

The second course in Speed Scholarship Week is a polemic on the theme of Big Data. Unlike the many fine existing rants about the privacy of the flies caught in Big Data’s webs, my rant is about the fate of the spiders. To an extent not fully appreciated, Big Data applications enable (and sometimes depend on) comprehensive surveillance of their users. Every question you ask of a Big Database reveals something about yourself, and don’t think that someone isn’t writing those questions down. Indeed, they may be logging your access precisely to keep you from violating the privacy of the people the data concerns. Big Data’s two privacy problems are twins, and rivals.

Big Data’s Other Privacy Problem is forthcoming in an edited collection of essays based on a Georgetown Law symposium on Big Data and and Big Challenges for Law and Legal Information, to be published by West Academic. I use the Bloomberg Terminal scandal as an example of how Big Data surveils its users, then step back and reflect on the relationship between this privacy problem and the more familiar one of protecting data subjects. Here’s an excerpt:

Thus, since Big Data cannot be entirely defanged and its users cannot be entirely trusted, it becomes necessary to watch them at work. It seems like a natural enough response to the problem of the Panopticon. Subject privacy is at risk because Big Data users can hide in the shadows as they train their telescopes not on the stars but on their neighbors. And so we might say, turn the floodlights around: ensure that there are no dark corners from which to spy. We would demand audit trails—permanent, tamper-proof records of every query and computation.

But if we are serious about user privacy as well as about subject privacy, transparency is deeply problematic. The audit trails that are supposed to protect Big Data subjects from abuse are themselves a perfect vector for abusing Big Data users. Indeed, they are doubly sensitive, because they are likely to contain sensitive information about both subjects and users. The one-way vision metaphor of the Panopticon, then, is double-edged. Think about glasses. A common intuition is that mirrorshades are creepy, because the wearer can see what he chooses without revealing where his interest lies. Everyone is up in arms about the Google Glass-holes who wear them into restrooms. But the all-seeing Eye is a window to the soul. The Segway for your face is also a camera pointed directly at your brain that syncs all its data to the cloud. The assumption Glass users are making, presumably, is that no one else will have access to their data, and so no one else will be pondering what they’re pondering. But that’s what Bloomberg Terminal users thought, too.

This draft marks another experiment. It’s formatted to a 5.5" × 8.5" page, so if you want to save paper, you can print it two-up. If you prefer your papers with plenty of whitespace, it should still look fine printed at 100% on 8.5" × 11" paper. Let me know whether you find this style convenient or confusing or both.