Benefits, Harms, Rights and Regulation: A Survey of Literature on Big Data

This report was authored by me, Vanya Rakesh, Vidushi Marda and Geethanjali Jujjavarapu. It was edited by Sunil Abraham, Elonnai Hickok and  Leilah Elmokadem, and originally published on the Internet Governance blog of the Centre for Internet and Society’s website.

In 2011, it was estimated that the quantity of data produced globally surpassed 1.8 zettabyte.By 2013 it had increased to 4 zettabytes. With the nascent development of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ gathering pace, these trends are likely to continue. This expansion in the volume, velocity, and variety of data available, together with the development of innovative forms of statistical analytics, is generally referred to as “Big Data”; though there is no single agreed upon definition of the term. Although still in its initial stages, big data promises to provide new insights and solutions across a wide range of sectors, many of which would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Despite enormous optimism about the scope and variety of big data’s potential applications, many remain concerned about its widespread adoption, with some scholars suggesting it could generate as many harms as benefits. Most notably are the concerns about the inevitable threats to privacy associated with the generation, collection and use of large quantities of data. Concerns have also been raised regarding, for example, the lack of transparency around the design of algorithms used to process the data, over-reliance on big data analytics as opposed to traditional forms of analysis and the creation of new digital divides. The existing literature on big data is vast. However, many of the benefits and harms identified by researchers tend to focus on sector specific applications of Big Data analytics, such as predictive policing, or targeted marketing. Whilst these examples can be useful in demonstrating the diversity of big data’s possible applications, they do not offer a holistic perspective of the broader impacts of Big Data.

This survey draws upon a range of literature including news articles, academic articles, and presentations and seeks to disaggregate the potential benefits and harms of big data, organising them into several broad categories that reflect the existing scholarly literature. The survey also recognises the non-technical big data regulatory options which are in place as well as those which have been proposed by various governments, civil society groups and academics.

Read the full report here.

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