Does more data create economic inequalities, privacy risks?

"You have to trust us," says Telstra CTO Hugh Bradlow

In a world where devices transmit huge amounts of personal information, it’s hard to ignore the potential economic and privacy implications, according to speakers at the Wired for Wonder conference this morning in Sydney.

Speakers pointed to an imminent explosion of “quantified-self” devices, including wearable computers, which collect a range of personal data about the user including information about their health.

“Using this stuff, we become big data,” said Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, who spoke yesterday about growing fears of a dystopian future. “We generate big data ourselves about ourselves.”

According to Telstra CTO Hugh Bradlow, “Everything that can be measured will be measured.”

Bradlow sees that as a positive development leading to a new “optimisation age” in which businesses can analyse the data to build useful services that enhance people’s lives, he said. “We’ll be able to use technology to reduce frictions.”

Kelly also pointed to some positive potential applications. For example, using health readings to personalise medicine.

However, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier pointed to a potentially more sinister application of medical data by American healthcare insurance providers. Those insurance providers may use data to predict who the company will more likely need to cover, “and then only insure the people who don’t need it”, he said.

Lanier said he has become a skeptic about the economic implications of big data. Access to powerful computers is helping a small group of people and companies make large amounts of money off others’ information, raising income inequality in developed economies, he said.

“We made a very simple miscalculation,” he said. “If you create a world where everybody’s sharing information openly, it is not the case that everybody benefits equally from that.

“Computers are not created equal, and whoever has the biggest computer crunching all that data will be able to do things with the data that other people with lesser computers cannot do.”

Where there's more data being generated in people's everyday life, there is more chance to misuse it, the speakers said. As Australia’s largest telco, Telstra is one company with access to a great amount of customer data.

Bradlow said Telstra and other businesses take seriously their responsibility to respect people’s privacy. “You have to trust us, not only not to steal your data, but not to let it into the wild and not to misuse it.”

He added that the government should keep out of the way of business. “Legislation and regulation simply does not keep pace with technology.”

The government must be equally transparent about their own collection and use of data, he said. Bradlow said the recent revelations that US intelligence is spying on its citizens under the PRISM surveillance program has been a “fiasco”.

“Trying to have security by obscurity is just plain stupidity.”

Lanier said he does not doubt the good intentions of many businesses that control large amounts of data, but said there remains a danger that the next person who inherits power at the companies won’t share the same ideals.

“It doesn’t matter how nice we are,” he said.

Insisting he is not all doom and gloom, Lanier proposed a solution whereby people get paid every time a company or other entity benefits from their personal information.

“By monetising information, we have potential to create a stable economy, a strong middle class and a social safety net without socialist committees.”

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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