Meeting the Challenges of Big Data

Opinion by the European Data Protection Supervisor: “Big data, if done responsibly, can deliver significant benefits and efficiencies for society and individuals not only in health, scientific research, the environment and other specific areas. But there are serious concerns with the actual and potential impact of processing of huge amounts of data on the rights and freedoms of individuals, including their right to privacy. The challenges and risks of big data therefore call for more effective data protection.

Technology should not dictate our values and rights, but neither should promoting innovation and preserving fundamental rights be perceived as incompatible. New business models exploiting new capabilities for the massive collection, instantaneous transmission, combination and reuse of personal information for unforeseen purposes have placed the principles of data protection under new strains, which calls for thorough consideration on how they are applied.

European data protection law has been developed to protect our fundamental rights and values, including our right to privacy. The question is not whether to apply data protection law to big data, but rather how to apply it innovatively in new environments. Our current data protection principles, including transparency, proportionality and purpose limitation, provide the base line we will need to protect more dynamically our fundamental rights in the world of big data. They must, however, be complemented by ‘new’ principles which have developed over the years such as accountability and privacy by design and by default. The EU data protection reform package is expected to strengthen and modernise the regulatory framework .

The EU intends to maximise growth and competitiveness by exploiting big data. But the Digital Single Market cannot uncritically import the data-driven technologies and business models which have become economic mainstream in other areas of the world. Instead it needs to show leadership in developing accountable personal data processing. The internet has evolved in a way that surveillance – tracking people’s behaviour – is considered as the indispensable revenue model for some of the most successful companies. This development calls for critical assessment and search for other options.

In any event, and irrespective of the business models chosen, organisations that process large volumes of personal information must comply with applicable data protection law. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) believes that responsible and sustainable development of big data must rely on four essential elements:

  • organisations must be much more transparent about how they process personal data;
  • afford users a higher degree of control over how their data is used;
  • design user friendly data protection into their products and services; and;
  • become more accountable for what they do….(More)