x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

How to have big data without big problems

The era of big data is upon the UAE as we move towards being a smart nation with online technology part of everyday life. But someone needs to ensure sufficient privacy remains.

With one of the highest adoption rates of smartphones on the planet, the UAE is at the forefront of the global push to become a “smart nation” in which online technology is integrated into everyday life. But as the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research’s annual conference heard this week, the dawning era of big data warrants care and supervision to ensure the intended benefits do not come at the price of sacrificing reasonable expectations of privacy.

This requires a delicate balancing act because one person’s technological boon can be seen by a second person as a creepy intrusion. Take the example of so-called smart fridges that monitor supplies of commodities like milk, alerting the owner if they are close to running out or even automatically ordering more. Or Virgin Atlantic, which is testing the use of Google Glasses by staff checking in customers flying first class, using face-recognition technology so customers can be greeted by name and provided with their favourite drink without having to ask.

We are already in the era of big data where companies tailor their product to individuals. When you search on Google using your usual computer, for example, your previous search history will influence the results you get. The future of big data will see companies improve their ability to differentiate between useful information and disregarding the vast quantity of irrelevant information that comes their way.

One of the key thresholds to determine whether this is welcome or intrusive is if one has opted to provide the information or whether one is required to opt out. Those who use Facebook can hardly claim a breach of privacy if, after endless posts extolling the virtues of Manchester City, advertisements relating to the team begin to appear on their profile.

But even in the era of big data, there are reasonable expectations of privacy – something valued particularly highly in the culture of the Gulf. This is where the government must set the boundaries for metadata, including selling it to third parties. Ought it be available only if the person has opted to share it or done so in a public forum?

For some who value their privacy particularly highly, the temptation might be to throw up their hands and try to go off the grid by, say, moving to the Empty Quarter. They shouldn’t be surprised if they start receiving advertisements for apartments in Liwa.