Big data privacy must be fixed before the revolution can begin

There won't be a 'big data revolution' until the public can be reassured that their data won't be misused.

Privacy concerns around big data need to be addressed before it can really provide benefits.

Big data is an asset which can create tens of thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of billions for the economy, but the opportunity can't be taken until concerns about privacy and security have been overcome.

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That's according to the newly released The Big Data Dilemma report which is based on evidence from technologists, open data enthusiasts, medical research organisations and privacy campaigners.

It warns that a big data revolution is coming - something it's suggested will generate over £200bn for the UK economy alone over the next five years - but personal data must not be exploited by corporations and that "well-founded" concerns surrounding privacy must be addressed.

The answer to this, the report suggests, is the formation of a 'Council of Data Ethics' which will be tasked with explicitly addressing concerns about consent and trust in the area of data collection and retention. It's only then, the report argues, that analysis of big data will truly be able to make a positive impact to society as a whole.

The report recommends that in order to address the growing legal and ethical challenges associated with balancing privacy, anonymisation, security and public benefit, the Council of Data Ethics should be established within the Alan Turing Institute, the UK's national institute for data science.

"There is often well-founded distrust about this and about privacy which must be resolved by industry and Government," said Nicola Blackwood MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which published the report.

"A 'Council of Data Ethics' should be created to explicitly address these consent and trust issues head on. And the government must signal that it is serious about protecting people's privacy by making the identifying of individuals by de-anonymising data a criminal offence," she added.

Nonetheless, the report cites high-technology science projects like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Square Kilometre Array - the world's largest radio telescope, set to be run from the UK's Jodrell Bank Observatory - as examples of how benefits can be gained from analysis of vast datasets.

"Properly exploited, this data should be transformative, increasing efficiency, unlocking new avenues in life-saving research and creating as yet unimagined opportunities for innovation," the report says.

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However, it also warns that existing big data is nowhere near being fully taken advantage of, with figures suggesting that companies are analysing just 12% of the data available to them.

Making use of this, the committee claims, "could create 58,000 new jobs over five years, and contribute £216bn to the UK economy" and could be especially effective at boosting efficiency in the public sector.

The committee also suggests that in order for government to address public concerns around big data, it shouldn't wait for European Union regulations take effect, but rather address the issue head on by introducing criminal penalties for misuse of data.

"We do not share the government's view that current UK data protections can simply be left until the Data Protection Act will have to be revised to take account of the new EU Regulation. Some areas need to be addressed straightaway -- introducing the Information Commissioner's kitemark and introducing criminal penalties," the report says.

"Such clarity is needed to give big data users the confidence they need to drive forward an increasingly big data economy, and individuals that their personal data will be respected," it adds, and the document's conclusion puts a strong emphasis on the need for data protection.

"Given the scale and place of data gathering and sharing, district arising from concerns about privacy and security is often well founded and must be resolved by industry and government is full value of big data is to be realised," it argues.

Privacy advocates have praised the report, but have also warned that the government still needs to do more on data protection issues.

"It's admirable that the Committee called out the government for dragging its feet waiting for the new EU Data Protection Regulation. Now the government must take the Regulation and make it true and real to protect our data," says Matthew Rice, advocacy officer at Privacy International.

"The recommendations in the report provide some practical, small steps that the government should take to better prepare not only for future regulation but for the future understanding of the issue of personal data protection," he adds.

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