danah boyd: privacy, publicity and ‘Big Data’

29 04 2010

Social networks researcher danah boyd, who has collaborated with Microsoft and Harvard’s Berkman Center, kicked off day two of FutureWeb with her WWW2010 keynote address. boyd focused her talk on “Big Data” and its implications in the world of Web 2.0, namely privacy and publicity consequences.

danah boyd delivers the WWW2010 keynote address, speaking about Big Data, privacy and publicity. (Photo: Dan Rickershauser)

“Data is the digital air in which we breathe and countless efforts are being put into trying to make sense of the data swirling around,” boyd said. “When we talk about privacy and publicity in a digital age, we can’t avoid talking about data.”

boyd described Big Data as the kind of information that marketers, researchers and businessmen and women use to track and analyze public behavior. She named social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, as core hosts of data.

We’ve entered an age where data is cheap, but making sense of it is not, boyd said. People must become actively engaged in the data in order to accurately and efficiently analyze human behavior online.

boyd cites four key issues to understand when working with Big Data:

  1. Bigger Data are Not Always Better Data
  2. Not All Data are Created Equal
  3. What and Why are Different Questions
  4. Be Careful of Your Interpretations

“Nobody loves Big Data better than marketers,” she said. “And nobody misinterprets Big Data better than marketers.”

One limitation to Big Data, boyd warned, is that it can only reveal certain things. Making assumptions about interpretations of that data is dangerous. boyd said such misinterpretations are “beautifully displayed when people try to implement findings into systems.”

Related to the problem of data misconceptions is the question of ethics. She cited privacy and publicity as two key issues that come into play. The biases and misinterpretations that are present in the analysis and use of Big Data are fundamentally affecting people’s lives, boyd said.

“Just because data is accessible doesn’t mean that using it is ethical,” boyd said. “It terrifies me when those who are passionate about Big Data espouse the right to collect, aggregate and analyze anything that they can get their hands on.”

Unintended consequences of our actions, including invasion of privacy, are why ethics matter. boyd said people begin to feel privacy violations as soon as their expectations are shattered in the physical environment.

She also spoke about the psychological consequences people suffer from who experience an invasion of privacy.

“Making content publicly accessible is not equal to being asked for it to be distributed, aggregated or otherwise scaled,” she said. “Paparazzi make celebrities’ lives a living hell. When we argue for the right to publicize any data that isn’t publicly accessible, we are arguing that everyone deserves the right to be stalked like a celebrity.”

In the context of social networks, she said people are sharing “personally identifiable information,” but are usually just concerned about “personally embarrassing information.”

The questions that arise from open access controls are challenging. Just because we can publicize content, should we? Just because we can aggregate and redistribute data, should we?

The answers to these questions still remain unclear, boyd said.

She spoke specifically about Facebook’s history with privacy issues, beginning with its initial reputation as a trusted, closed system with boundaries. Over the years, developments such as the News feed, Beacon and changing privacy settings have “left many users clueless and confused.” Still, boyd says people are slowly learning how to manipulate the technology to control their privacy.

“Privacy will always be a process that people are navigating,” boyd said. “Big Data is made out of people. We have to develop systems and do analysis that balance the complex ways in which people are negotiating these systems.  You are shaping the future, and I challenge you to build the future you want to inhabit.”

-by Ashley Dischinger

Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/




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