Big Data, Big Issues

Can Big Data be abused?

Many folks are concerned about privacy when it comes to Big Data. And there are real issues. It’s a little creepy to be greeted by, “Hello, Mr. Tengdin. Did you like the shirts you bought last week?”— when I call a customer center. But that’s just efficient service. It makes sense for a retailer to know who’s calling. Most people like being greeted by name.

No, our online world creates other issues. With a little ingenuity, data scientists can know a lot more about you than you realize. Let’s just say on the front end that some things should be off limits. Discussions with lawyers about legal issues, conversations with doctors about medical issues, talks with pastors on spiritual issues—if it’s privileged in court, it should be protected from data miners. And of course hacking personal information—financial, educational, etc.—is criminal.

But there are other moral minefields that firms can stumble into. Facebook recently got in trouble for tweaking its users’ news feeds—altering which stories came up first. Now, I expect firms to find out what impacts their customers—like changing a store’s layout to improve sales. But other sites have run tests where they gave false information to users to see what happened. This is more than annoying: there are serious issues that arise when your experiments affect peoples’ lives.

At a minimum, companies using data science should have someone review what data they’re using and what tests they’re running from an ethical perspective. Someone has to be able to simply say, “This is wrong.”


Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
Phone: 603-224-1350
Leave a comment if you have any questions—I read them all!

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