Legal expert warns of privacy issues with ‘big data’ mining

Privacy and data protection laws need to be tested against human rights obligations as ‘big data’, for all its potential security and other benefits can have unintended consequences, a legal expert has warned.

Professor Maeve McDonagh from University College Cork’s school of law, said a proposed new European regulation on data protection, while containing some innovative provisions, does not take appropriate account of developments in big data.

The big data concept refers to sophisticated analysis being applied to huge sets of data gathered from diverse sources, from apps to social networks, which can lead to unexpected correlations.

The information law specialist said the European regulation focuses on requirements to tell people how personal data will be used at the time they give it, but collectors may not reveal or even know of those ‘downstream’ uses.

She said it is unrealistic to speak of genuine consent in an age when few people read through privacy policies before surrendering their personal data when downloading an app, for example.

“Research has shown that most people automatically tick the box indicating their agreement to whatever conditions are set out. For those who do read the privacy policy, the language is often very difficult to understand. Also, individuals are left in a position that if they don’t tick the box they won’t get access to the product.”

She spoke at a panel discussion at the UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday, marking World Statistics Day and the centrality of UCC’s first maths professor George Boole’s legacy to better data for better lives. The event heard UCC president Dr Michael Murphy tell the story of Boole, whose theories underpin modern digital technology and computing.

The 200th anniversary of Boole’s birth is being celebrated at UCC this year.

The US premiere of the documentary The Genius of George Boole also took place in New York on Tuesday.


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