At MIT Workshop, Researchers Weigh Pros, Cons Of 'Big Data'

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MIT Prof. Sam Madden speaks about mobile and big data at a workshop on campus on Monday. (Elise Amendola/AP)
MIT Prof. Sam Madden speaks about mobile and big data at a workshop on campus on Monday. (Elise Amendola/AP)

After it was revealed that the National Security Agency was monitoring the phone calls of world leaders and storing massive amounts of data about the rest of us, President Obama gave a major policy speech about individual privacy and modern technology.

“When you cut through the noise, what's really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed,” he said in January.

To explore this new world where governments and companies have the ability to amass, analyze and use vast amounts of personal information, the president ordered a comprehensive review of what's called "big data."

The first of three meetings in this review process took place at MIT Monday.

'Big Data' And The Future

Big data is a big deal, says White House adviser John Podesta, head of the presidential study on the future of privacy and big data and the keynote speaker at the MIT workshop.

“We're undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used,” he said.

Podesta was supposed to appear in person but a snowstorm grounded him in Washington, D.C. He spoke by phone and suggested the trajectory of technology and our willingness to make public our personal information seems clear.

“On Facebook there are some 350 million photos uploaded and shared every day,” he said. “On YouTube 100 hours of video is uploaded every minute, and we're only in the very nascent stage of the Internet of things, where our appliances will communicate with each other and sensors will be nearly ubiquitous.”

Podesta said soon, not only will users of big data be able to analyze our past behavior, they'll be able to predict it in advance.

Online retailer Amazon recently got a patent for what it calls “anticipatory shipping," delivering products you want even before you buy them.

“How should we think about individuals’ sense of their identity when data reveals things about them they didn't even know about themselves?” Podesta asked. “In this study we want to explore the capabilities of big data analytics but also the social and policy implications of that capability.”

The Potential Benefits

The MIT workshop included heavy-hitters in the privacy-big data debate. One panel included Prof. John Guttag, head of MIT's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. He argued that big data, using personal electronic medical records, can prevent the spread of deadly hospital infections.

"I'm for privacy but not at the cost of avoidable pain, suffering and death."

MIT Prof. John Guttag

“Progress in health care is too important and too urgent to wait for privacy to be solved,” he said. “I'm for privacy but not at the cost of avoidable pain, suffering and death.”

The technology game-changer in the privacy-big data debate is the device which we hold near and dear and use to share our most personal, intimate information willingly — and sometimes unknowingly. It's the mobile phone, said MIT database researcher Sam Madden.

“In 2011 there were 5 billion cellphones in the world,” he said. “I think that's kind of amazing statistic because it’s like more than the number of people who have shoes or toilets or toothbrushes. And of those 5 billion phones, 1 billion were already these smartphone-class devices with broadband-style Internet connections. And you guys probably all know your smartphones are already heavily equipped with sensors, and they’re going to become increasingly more so.”

We already wear data transmitting devices that monitor how much exercise we get. That can be used in medical studies. There are cameras on highways, subways and buildings watching our every movement to prevent terrorist attacks and regulate the flow of traffic. Sharing our private data can have public benefit, Madden said.


“There are studies that show in the riskiest group of young, male drivers, that they will reduce their risky behavior by up to 72 percent if they know that they are being monitored,” he said. “So you can talk about whether this is a societally compelling good or not. Obviously monitoring your teenage drivers is risky, but we would like to reduce unsafe driving behavior. That seems societally compelling. Of course there is no clear-cut answer. I think we as a society have to decide what we're comfortable with.”

Big data has the potential to become Big Brother as we willingly invite access into our lives because of the perceived benefits. Carol Rose, executive director of Massachusetts ACLU, says there'll be hearings in the State House Wednesday on the use of big data from drones and license plate readers.

“Drones, license plate readers may have uses but they're only useful if they're used in a way that isn't abused by people who have access to that information to track you, to harass you or to otherwise violate your rights,” she said. “So we need to find a way to balance the law that protects our privacy with the ability to have technology. I think it’s possible for us to be both safe and free.”

The presidential panel on big data and privacy will hold two more meetings around the country and within 90 days issue its report on ways to balance privacy and the collection of massive amounts of personal information.

This segment aired on March 4, 2014.

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Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



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