Massive amounts of new data about people, their movements, and activities can now be accessed and analyzed as never before. Numerous privacy concerns have been raised by use – or misuse – of such data in commercial and national security arenas. Yet we are motivated by the potential for “big data” to be harnessed to serve the public good: scientists can use new forms of data to do research that improves people’s live; federal, state and local governments can use data to improve the delivery of services to citizens; and non-profit organizations can use the information to advance the public good.

Access to big data raises many unanswered questions related to privacy and confidentiality:  What are the ethical and legal requirements for scientists and government officials seeking to serve the public good without harming individual citizens? What are the rules of engagement? What are the best ways to provide access while protecting confidentiality? Are there reasonable mechanisms to compensate citizens for privacy loss?

CUSP, along with the American Statistical Association and its Privacy and Confidentiality subcommittee and the Research Data Centre of the German Federal Employment Agency, sponsored a book on this very issue, Privacy, Big Data, and the Public Good: Frameworks for Engagement.  Published by Cambridge University Press, this book is an accessible summary of the important legal, economic, and statistical thinking that frames the many privacy issues associated with the use of big data – along with practical suggestions for protecting privacy and confidentiality that can help to guide practitioners.

The book launch, held at the New York Academy of Sciences on July 16th, included talks and panels by the book’s editors and a number of the authors. You can watch these talks and panels below. 

Editors’ Panel

Moderator: Michael Holland
Panelists: Julia Lane, Victoria Stodden, Stefan Bender, Helen Nissenbaum

The editors discuss the motivation for the book and how it contributes to the broader conversation on privacy concerns about big data.  They also briefly highlight the contribution of authors who were unable to participate in the event.

Panel 1: Law, Ethics, and Economics of Big Data

Moderator: Jake Bournazian

Panel: Helen Nissenbaum, Kathy Strandburg, Victoria Stodden

Authors discuss the fact that “big data” is more than a straightforward change in technology.  It poses deep challenges to our traditions of notice and consent as tools for managing privacy.  Because our new tools of data science can make it all but impossible to guarantee anonymity in the future, is it possible to truly give informed consent, when we cannot, by definition, know what the risks are from revealing personal data either for individuals or for society as a whole?


Panel 2: Practical Concerns of Working with Big Data

Moderator: Julia Lane
Panelists: Bob Goerge, Daniel “Dazza” Greenwood, Carl Landwehr

Based on their experience building large data collections, authors discuss some of the best practical ways to provide access while protecting confidentiality.  What have we learned about effective engineered controls?  About effective access policies?  About designing data systems that reinforce – rather than counter – access policies?  They also explore the business, legal, and technical standards necessary for a new deal on data.


Panel 3: Statistical Framework: Issues & Practical Responses

Moderator: Stefan Bender
Panelists: Frauke Kreuter, Jerry Reiter, Peter Elias

Since the data generating process or the data collection process is not necessarily well understood for big data streams, authors discuss what statistics can tell us about how to make greatest scientific use of this data. They also explore the shortcomings of current disclosure limitation approaches and whether we can quantify the extent of privacy loss.


Capstone Speaker: Theresa Pardo

Our capstone speaker is the Director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, the Open NY Policy Advisor for Open.NY.Gov, and the President of the Digital Government Society.  She shows us how “big data” can be harnessed to serve the public good by presenting a guide for making information in the public sector more available and more usable.