To Share or Not to Share: the Big Data Dilemma

Dear Friends,

The new year has rolled by and so has a new decade.  As expected, Artificial Intelligence has been the talk of the week, with analysis of past and current AI developments, predictions for the future and challenges being discussed through the net. I read quite a few articles this week with predictions for the new decade’s developments in Artificial Intelligence and robotics. Some were highly optimistic, some were catastrophic and some were very generic. Overall, I thought Calum Chace’s article was particularly reasonable and realistic – with focus on two key areas which have good realisation promise in the coming years: self driving cars and (functioning) digital assistants.

Talking of trends for the future, I would like to add some thoughts to the discussion by addressing a matter which I have not seen discussed yet amongst the articles I have been able to read. That is the increasing need for users to decide where to place the balance between sharing and not sharing information with the apps they daily use for their own utility and convenience.

The 2010s were the era of social media. I remember signing up to Facebook when it first started rolling out in the APAC region. I was working as inhouse counsel at the Hong Kong APAC headquarters of an international media company at the time and our team was one of the first to sign up to Facebook in that region: it was part of our job to try out out and we had some fun with it. In 2010 the movie The Social Media added to its success.  At about the same time, LinkedIn had started to gain success work-networking platform, and the rest is history.  For the 2010s decade, the big question about sharing data was what to share on social media, how to share it and how to gain more followers to increase the fun of such sharing.  It was mainly an entertainment-driven and in some cases marketing-related sharing, which seemed innocuous, was good to keep up with distant friends, and in its newness and disruptiveness provided a measure of communication fun.

In recent times the world has started to wear off sharing details of personal life on social media, thanks to increased understanding and incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 which radically changed the world’s awareness on the risks of data sharing (I thought an article published on 18 March 2019 in The Guardian by J.C. Wong summarized this pivoting moment quite well: “[…] That’s because what happened with Cambridge Analytica was not a matter of Facebook’s systems being infiltrated, but of Facebook’s systems working as designed: data was amassed, data was extracted, and data was exploited”), a new type of sharing – dilemma is rising to public conscience’s attention and I believe it will be from a privacy perspective the predominant issue of the new decade.

That is the sharing an individual’s data through phone apps and digital assistant enquiries which are not meant to be public or social-meadiable (unless the user wants them to be), but private to the user and yet bound to be stored, analyzed and statistically measured, initially for the user’s benefit:  ie to allow the user to access the benefits of such apps.   I became personally quite aware of this when my phone this morning informed me that my daily steps had fallen behind the usual average in the past few days, that I had not slept enough hours last night, that my stress levels were slightly higher than my latest average and where I was in my moon cycle.  My dilemma in terms of privacy in the past couple of years had been whether to allow my favorite shopping websites to keep a record of past purchases and buying preferences, easily solved when shopping apps took over and convenience (keeping a track record of past purchases to allow for easier new purchases) easily won over my track-record diffidence.  Allowing several apps to track (and share between themselves) my biometric data took matters to an entire different level.

Data sharing is an increasing component of individuals’ life and this is particularly concerning where it regards health and biomedical data.  On the other hand it is this type of data analysis and sharing which allows for new possibilities in medicine and even in day to day life.  Admittedly, notwithstanding my initial skepticism, my life has personally been positively affected by a couple of these new apps (except when they assign badges of honor for reaching specific goals and invited me to “share” them as my watch tried to do this morning, which is personally where I definitely draw the line at this time).  However, annoying badges aside, it is difficult at this time to understand the full implications of this type of data sharing and decide where is the point where privacy should not be traded off for utility and convenience.   The same will have to be said about the enquiry data shared with digital assistants, and about face recognition used as a password.   A compromise will have to be found but how will we go about finding such compromise? Steering clear of potentially catastrophic outcomes and dystopian The-Circle-type realities, it will be the good old way: through trial and error.

My prediction on the process of finding a reasonable compromise in this area is that some events will happen in the next few years which will make the public more knowledgeable of what the potential risks actually are, and will accelerate the shifting of the scale towards one of the two extremes, privacy vs convenience/utility.    Alternatively, perhaps new technology will find a way to allow data to be safely shared and used.  I like to be optimistic and think that time, experience, and sensible policy making will work through a good enough balance, or perhaps the best balance possible.  Until new technologies will shift that balance again

Whatever the outcome, the new processes through which data is shared on a daily basis certainly raise new ethical and legal challenges: the issue is difficult to resolve with the current regulations which are based on consent given by the user after reading a privacy policy – as the outcomes are often unpredictable.  This is however how technology evolves, and the challenges associated with it need to be addressed. By trial and error, one step at the time.

cropped-Stefania-Lucchetti-4-1.jpgStefania Lucchetti – Founder of Law Crossborder

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