Navigating the tricky ethical terrain of big data: Business Day

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This is an extract of a piece I recently wrote on the ethics of personal data commercialisation. This piece appeared in the print edition (on 6 July 2015) and on the website.

TOM Cruise’s 2002 science fiction drama, The Minority Report, involved a world of sensors and machines that knew more about the humans they monitored than they did about themselves.

Interactive billboards at shop entrances scanned shoppers’ eyes before greeting them by name.

Elsewhere, sensors collected information, tracking people’s movements and displaying personalised advertisements. This bombardment of information about goods for purchase, personalised for each consumer, is almost a reality today — thanks to big data.

Data use is not new in marketing; companies have long kept databases on customers’ preferences. What is new is the scale of data now available, and the technological means used for its collection and analysis.

Although much of the data is held by individual companies in standalone databases, rather than the cohesive and ubiquitous collection in the Minority Report, it may well be more widely shared in the near future.

Google any product and advertisements will pop up on the websites you visit afterwards, displaying advertisements for that item. People with loyalty cards from retail chains or who are members of insurance-linked wellness incentive programmes, such as Discovery Vitality, are handing over large amounts of personal data.

Wearable devices — pedometers or training watches — all collect personal data for commercialisation.

“It is the natural progression of where we’ve been going since Gmail first popularised giving up personal information in return for a service,” says Dominic White, chief technology officer at SensePost, an information security firm.

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