Use of Big Data to predict human behaviour demands regulation, says UCC professor

Privacy and data protection legislation worldwide is ill-equipped to deal with the Big Data revolution, according to a University College Cork professor.

Professor Maeve McDonagh from UCC’s School of Law and an academic lawyer was speaking at a panel discussion at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, organised by the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and UCC.

“Big Data is now being used to predict individual behaviour and its use for this purpose can result in decisions being made about people based on that analysis, which limits their autonomy and potentially opens them to discrimination,” said Professor McDonagh.

Big Data involves applying data analysis tools to huge sets of data gathered from diverse sources, from social networks to apps and it establishes correlations, some of which are unexpected.

Professor McDonagh stated the use of big data to predict human behaviour demands careful regulation, particularly in contexts such as law enforcement and government surveillance.

"The processing of Big Data can have negative implications for the enjoyment of the right to privacy which is protected by all the major human rights conventions. We need to revisit our privacy and data protection legislation to ensure that it meets the standards demanded by our human rights law obligations."

She believes proposed new European General Data Protection Regulation contains some innovative provisions.

“It focuses primarily on requirements of notice and consent. The notice requirement means that people must be informed at the time they supply their personal data of all of the uses it will be put to. This is impractical in the Big Data context because the collectors may not reveal or even be aware of those downstream uses.”

However Professor McDonagh did warn about the dangers of giving consent online, even questioning the term genuine consent as few people read through privacy policies before surrendering their personal data like when downloading an app.

"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 used 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.”

Professor McDonagh; UCC President, Dr Michael Murphy; and Professor Barry O’Sullivan, Director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in the Department of Computer Science at UCC delivered talks this week on George Boole, data analytics and sustainable development; and Big Data and human rights a panel discussion at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, organised by the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and UCC.

The UCC-commissioned documentary The Genius of George Boole, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, had its US premiere at the United Nations on October 20.


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