Exploiting Big Data’s opportunities will need a delicate balance between the right to knowledge and the right of the individual.

The second decade of the 21st century is epitomised by Big Data. From the status updates, friendship connections and preferences on Facebook and Twitter to search strings on Google, locations on mobile phones and shopping history on store cards, this is data that’s too big to compute easily, yet is so rich it is being used by institutions in the public and private sectors to identify what people want before they are even aware they want it.

Facebook’s projected $100bn value is based on the data it offers people who want to exploit its social graph. It has more than 800m records about who’s in a user’s social circle, relationship information, likes, dislikes, public and private messages and even physiological characteristics.

“People give out their data often without thinking about it,” said the European commission vice—president Viviane Reding (pictured). “They have no idea that it will be sold to third parties.” She has campaigned for the “right to be forgotten”, a 1995 directive that establishes that private data is the property of the individual and must be deleted on request at any time. “More and more people feel uncomfortable about being traced everywhere,” said Reding. © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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