In the 1960s, mainframe computers posed a significant technological challenge to common notions of privacy. That’s when the federal government started putting tax returns into those giant machines, and consumer credit bureaus began building databases containing the personal financial information of millions of Americans. Many people feared that the new computerised databanks would be put in the service of an intrusive corporate or government Big Brother.

“It really freaked people out,” says Daniel J. Weitzner, a former senior Internet policy official in the Obama administration. “The people who cared about privacy were every bit as worried as we are now.”

Varied data

Along with fuelling privacy concerns, of course, the mainframes helped prompt the growth and innovation that we have come to associate with the computer age. Today, many experts predict that the next wave will be driven by technologies that fly under the banner of Big Data — data including Web pages, browsing habits, sensor signals, smartphone location trails and genomic information, combined with clever software to make sense of it all.

Proponents of this new technology say it is allowing us to see and measure things as never before — much as the microscope allowed scientists to examine the mysteries of life at the cellular level. Big Data, they say, will open the door to making smarter decisions in every field from business and biology to public health and energy conservation.

“This data is a new asset,” says Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist and director of the Human Dynamics Lab at the M.I.T. “You want it to be liquid and to be used.”

But the latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy — an issue so crucial that it could trump all others and upset the Big Data bandwagon. Dr. Pentland is a champion of the Big Data vision and believes the future will be a data-driven society. Yet the surveillance possibilities of the technology, he acknowledges, could leave George Orwell in the dust.

Forum’s report

The World Economic Forum published a report late last month that offered one path — one that leans heavily on technology to protect privacy. The report grew out of a series of workshops on privacy held over the last year, sponsored by the forum and attended by government officials and privacy advocates, as well as business executives. The corporate members, more than others, shaped the final document.

The report, “Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage,” recommends a major shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use of data. Curbs on the use of personal data, combined with new technological options, can give individuals control of their own information, according to the report, while permitting important data assets to flow relatively freely.

“There’s no bad data, only bad uses of data,” says Craig Mundie, a senior adviser at Microsoft, who worked on the position paper.

Examples

The report contains echoes of earlier times. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, passed in 1970, was the main response to the mainframe privacy challenge. The law permitted the collection of personal financial information by the credit bureaus, but restricted its use mainly to three areas: credit, insurance and employment. The forum report suggests a future in which all collected data would be tagged with software code that included an individual’s preferences for how his or her data is used. All uses of data would have to be registered, and there would be penalties for violators. For example, one violation might be a smartphone application that stored more data than is necessary for a registered service like a smartphone game or a restaurant finder.

The corporate members of the forum say they recognise the need to address privacy concerns if useful data is going to keep flowing. George C. Halvorson, chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, the large health-care provider, extols the benefits of its growing database on nine million patients, tracking treatments and outcomes to improve care, especially in managing costly chronic and debilitating conditions like heart disease, diabetes and depression. New smartphone applications, he says, promise further gains — for example, a person with a history of depression whose movement patterns slowed sharply would get a check-in call.

“We’re on the cusp of a golden age of medical science and care delivery,” Mr. Halvorson says. “But a privacy backlash could cripple progress.”

Corporate executives and privacy experts agree that the best way forward combines new rules and technology tools. But some privacy professionals say the approach in the recent forum report puts way too much faith in the tools and too little emphasis on strong rules, particularly in moving away from curbs on data collection.

“We do need use restrictions, but there is a real problem with getting rid of data collection restrictions,” says David C. Vladeck, a professor of law at Georgetown University. “And that’s where they are headed.”

“I don’t buy the argument that all data is innocuous until it’s used improperly,” adds Mr. Vladeck, former director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

Data trail

He offers this example: Imagine spending a few hours looking online for information on deep fat fryers. You could be looking for a gift for a friend or researching a report for cooking school. But to a data miner, tracking your click stream, this hunt could be read as a telltale signal of an unhealthy habit — a data-based prediction that could make its way to a health insurer or potential employer.

Dr. Pentland, an academic adviser to the World Economic Forum’s initiatives on Big Data and personal data, agrees that limitations on data collection still make sense, as long as they are flexible and not a “sledgehammer that risks damaging the public good.”

He is leading a group at the M.I.T. Media Lab that is at the forefront of a number of personal data and privacy programmes and real-world experiments. He espouses what he calls “a new deal on data” with three basic tenets: you have the right to possess your data, to control how it is used, and to destroy or distribute it as you see fit.

Personal data, Dr. Pentland says, is like modern money — digital packets that move around the planet, travelling rapidly but needing to be controlled. “You give it to a bank, but there’s only so many things the bank can do with it,” he says.

His M.I.T. group is developing tools for controlling, storing and auditing flows of personal data. Its data store is an open-source version, called openPDS. In theory, this kind of technology would undermine the role of data brokers and, perhaps, mitigate privacy risks. In the search for a deep fat fryer, for example, an audit trail should detect unauthorised use.

Dr. Pentland’s group is also collaborating with law experts, like Scott L. David of the University of Washington, to develop innovative contract rules for handling and exchanging data that insures privacy and security and minimises risk.

The M.I.T. team is also working on living lab projects. One that began recently is in the region around Trento, Italy, in cooperation with Telecom Italia and Telefónica, the Spanish mobile carrier. About 100 young families with young children are participating. The goal is to study how much and what kind of information they share on smartphones with one another, and with social and medical services — and their privacy concerns.

“Like anything new,” Dr. Pentland says, “people make up just-so stories about Big Data, privacy and data sharing,” often based on their existing beliefs and personal bias. “We’re trying to test and learn,” he says. — New York Times News Service

The latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy