The latest big data controversy will end with LinkedIn paying 13 million dollars in damages in a class action suit for “trying too hard to add people to your professional network.” After setting up a LinkedIn account, the website would send invitations to your email contacts asking them to join your professional network. If the contact did not respond to your invitation, LinkedIn would send two follow up emails reminding the contact of your invitation. While LinkedIn users did agree to surrender some of their contact information, they did not agree to the follow up emails. The Court did find fault on LinkedIn’s part and it subsequently agreed to settle for 13 million dollars.
This suit is just the latest in a number of big data controversies. Big data refers to the collection and storage of private information that is then sold and used for any number of purposes including targeted advertising. Information is being collected through Internet usage, magazine subscriptions, and even credit card usage. Private data brokers and data miners collect your information and then turn around and sell it to companies, advertisers, and anyone else who will pay.
Among the things to be concerned about are those private data brokers and other companies that compile massive amounts of information on hundreds of millions of people from sources such as social media services, online ad clicks, purchase histories and public records.
While big data collection is happening everywhere, and only advancing with technology, where are the laws to protect users’ privacy?
The first issue for user privacy is whether these companies are getting legal permission to collect the data at all. Many companies are collecting and selling user data without any consent at all. For example, United Kingdom Google users sued Google after discovering that their data was being collected in order to target advertisements to them. Even though Google made the information anonymous, it still disseminated the information in order to put more targeted advertisements around their search engine page. The users never agreed to a release and never signed a contract with Google.
The second issue is even if users do consent to the collection of data; there is no transparency on what exactly the data will be used for after it is collected. For example, LinkedIn was acting on behalf of its users by sending follow up emails even though they never sought permission to do so. While users did consent to collection when they signed up for the service, that particular use of the data had never been consented to.
Lastly, the third issue is what happens to the data in the future. Technology allows data storage to last indefinitely, leaving total uncertainty as to the fate of collected and stored data in the future. There are too many unknown factors as to what the data might be used for even just ten years down the road.
The solutions to these issues are laws that require permission from users and transparency by companies. The law should provide for protection for the public and offer legal recourse when data collection violates user’s privacy. The bottom line should be permission and consumer awareness. At the very least, companies wishing to collect data should be forced to get permission and consent from users. Then, in the agreement to give permission, companies should have to disclose what purposes the data will be used for and what will happen to the data in the future. If these details are hashed out and agreed to in a contract, the user will have legal recourse if the company strays from the agreed upon purposes. In addition, these contracts would keep companies and consumers on the same page, ensuring consumer awareness and avoiding any misuse of data.
Big data is changing rapidly with technology and keeping consumers aware of data collection and protecting consumers from exploitation is of utmost importance. The law must be adapted and changed to fit today’s, which is becoming more reliant on technology everyday. Big data issues will only grow with technology and legal changes are the best way to protect consumers.