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June 21, 2013

Big Data's Dark Side

Big data analytics has a lot of good potential uses that help citizens, such as identifying flu outbreaks or recommending a really good book. But along with the good comes the bad--such as being denied health insurance or a loan due to something you might have bought. Some say big data has already gone too far.

The revelation that the NSA collects and keeps year's worth of data on Americans in PRISM and related programs spurred NPR columnist Adam Frank to take to his blog, where he recently dissected some of the more questionable aspects of big data.

According to Frank, big data's dark side starts with the collection and sharing of records from computers and phones, including geolocation data, purchases made via credit card, and Web surfing history. "Big Data moves from 'ick' to potentially harmful when all of those breadcrumbs are thrown in a machine for processing," he says on his blog.

In the brave new big-data world, who you know helps define you--for better and for worse. The associates you keep on LinkedIn can be used to determine your "character and capacity," and affect your ability to be approved for a loan, Frank says.

Further, the types of friends you have on Facebook--whether they are "rich" or "deadbeats"--can also be analyzed to pain a picture of you. "Companies will argue they are only trying to sort out the good applicants from the bad," Frank says. "But there is also a real risk that you will be unfairly swept into an algorithm's dead zone and disqualified from a loan."

As Americans, a portrait of who we are can be teased out of what we buy. To that end, credit card history provides a vast repository of buying behavior and the stores we frequent. However, it is also an area that's ripe for abuse. The ACLU's Jay Stanley has raised concerns over the practice of "behavioral scoring" that involves analyzing repayment history of the other customers of stores where a person shops.

A history of prescription drug use is something that health insurance companies are very interested in. While abuse of prescription drugs is certainly a red flag, insurance companies have also been known to deny coverage to people who use prescriptions to treat minor conditions, such as blood pressure and depression, as Business Week reported in 2008.

Ever buy some plus-size clothes? That could also come back to haunt you. According to a Wall Street Journal story from earlier this year, insurance companies such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina are using big data to create profiles of their members. In this case, a history of buying plus-size clothes could lead an insurance company to flag the member for obesity, and refer him or her to weight loss solutions, the WSJ reports.

The intersection of big data and our daily lives is not merely a question of privacy, but much more, Frank says. "The debate opening up before us is an essential one for a culture dominated by science and technology," he writes.

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