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Privacy in the Age of Big Data

We live in an age of “big data.” Data has become the raw material of production, a new source of immense economic and social value. Advances in data mining and analytics and the massive increase in computing power and data storage capacity have expanded, by orders of magnitude, the scope of information available to businesses, government, and individuals.[1] In addition, the increasing number of people, devices, and sensors that are now connected by digital networks has revolutionized the ability to generate, communicate, share, and access data.[2] Data create enormous value for the global economy, driving innovation, productivity, efficiency, and growth. At the same time, the “data deluge” presents privacy concerns that could stir a regulatory backlash, dampening the data economy and stifling innovation.[3] In order to craft a balance between beneficial uses of data and the protection of individual privacy, policymakers must address some of the most fundamental concepts of privacy law, including the definition of “personally identifiable information,” the role of consent, and the principles of purpose limitation and data minimization.

Big Data: Big Benefits

The uses of big data can be transformative, and the possible uses of the data can be difficult to anticipate at the time of initial collection. For example, the discovery of Vioxx’s adverse effects, which led to its withdrawal from the market, was made possible by the analysis of clinical and cost data collected by Kaiser Permanente, a California-based managed-care consortium. Had Kaiser Permanente not connected these clinical and cost data, researchers might not have been able to attribute 27,000 cardiac arrest deaths occurring between 1999 and 2003 to use of Vioxx.[4] Another oft-cited example is Google Flu Trends, a service that predicts and locates outbreaks of the flu by making use of information—aggregate search queries—not originally collected with this innovative application in mind.[5] Of course, early detection of disease, when followed by rapid response, can reduce the impact of both seasonal and pandemic influenza.

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