New research reveals big problems with big data

Friday, 26 September 2014

In an era of big data and mass surveillance, everything from social media activity and internet searches to purchasing habits and GPS movements are collated to build an individual profile and make assumptions about behaviours and personalities.

New research published in the September issue of the UNSW Law Journal, co-authored by University of Adelaide digital media expert Dr Sal Humphreys, says one of the key concerns about this new 'age of surveillance' is a lack of control over the data that is collected and where it is then distributed.

"Data collection has become almost ubiquitous - it's carried out in public and private spaces. People sometimes volunteer their information and sometimes it's harvested from their actions without them knowing," says Dr Humphreys, senior lecturer in Media at the University of Adelaide.

"Websites' privacy policies often include terms that indicate they share information with third parties. However, there is no control over what those third parties do with the information. Data can also be harvested from people's smart phones through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi while they walk through public spaces," she says.

Dr Humphreys says while data collecting may appear harmless, data profiles, which pull together streams of data from various sources over long periods of time, can be damaging.

"The collection of individuals' data may not appear to be sinister. We're reasonably accustomed to targeted online advertising," she says, "but advertising is not the only way our data is used."

"Algorithms are used to find patterns in data and categorise people according to their choices and behaviours. However our data profiles will never be a true representation of our 'real' selves because decisions we make can be de-contextualised and misinterpreted - the data and algorithms never ask why we do what we do.

"An incorrect profile of us can be highly problematic in certain contexts, like when we make credit card applications, housing applications or when police use them for criminal profiling," she says.

Dr Humphreys says it's very difficult to avoid being captured in big data and even deliberately using false information doesn't go undetected.

"Up to 47% of Australians have entered false information into websites demanding personal details to gain access. However, this false data can also be collected and can feed into inaccuracies in a person's data profile," she says.

"Resisting technology and social media by not participating or limiting usage is a way in which people can reduce the amount of data collected about them but in doing so they can be excluded from their social networks and communities.

"You have a data profile and as a member of the general community, there's no way of knowing what it says about you. The troubling thing is the lack of transparency or accountability of those who use the data profiles."


Contact Details

Dr Sal Humphreys
Senior lecturer
Discipline of Media
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5227

Media & Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 0814