How To Protect Your Privacy In The Big Data Era?

Many of us have read the book ‘1984’, where George Orwell describes a society with omnipresent government surveillance and without privacy. The PRISM scandal revealed that the United States, and most probably many other countries, is already trying to get a grasp on the vast amounts of data being created today in order to stop terrorism and detect criminal activities. Most probably, this is not something that can be stopped easily. In addition, consumers nowadays share so much personal data via so many different networks that some people say that privacy is already something from the past. Still however, for many people privacy is an important good that they want to protect. But how can you protect your privacy in the big data era?

In order to understand how you can protect your privacy, it is important to know the three different groups that affect your privacy:

  1. Yourself a.k.a. the consumers that create vast amounts of data via a plethora of devices, websites, networks;
  2. Organisations and governments a.k.a. the collectors and users that collect all the data that is created within their organisation or government and use it to gain new insights for themselves or for others (the data markets);
  3. Regulators a.k.a. government organisations, the court or consumer organisations that are trying to develop policy regarding commercial use of data and how data has to be protected.

You and Yourself

A lot of the data created today is created by consumers. Consumers that share their story on social networks, post reviews on different platforms, use quantified-self apps to track their every day activities, communicate via e-mail, chat or Skype and use a vast amount of apps on a smartphone or tablet. If you want to protect your privacy it is first of all important to know what data you are sharing with whom. Once your data is in the public domain (on the Internet) it is almost impossible to delete it again (although nowadays you have tools that can help you with that).

But did you know that big data can help determine your credit score when you apply for a loan or a credit card? There are several big data startups that have developed tools to analyse your social network, and many other variables, to determine your credit score. Or are you aware that 10% of the job hunters are rejected because of their social media profile? So being aware that your data is being used to analyse you is the starting point of protecting your privacy. Once you know that, you can decide for yourself if you want to opt-in or opt-out.

Next to that, it is important to know that in the world of big data, nothing is for free. So although a lot of organisations offer  ‘free’ tools for you to use, these tools are actually not free of charge. You pay for it with your data and being aware of this is another starting point if you want to protect your privacy.

Organisations and Governments


In a TED talk at TED Global in 2012, Malte Spitz describes that if the Stasi would have known what our governments know today, the Berlin Wall might never have come down. With the information collected, governments can find the mavens and leaders within society and with this information you can control a society.

In addition, in an interview in 2009, ex Google CEO Eric Schmidt already said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Organisations and governments have a lot of reasons to collect as much data as possible about you. What can/do organizations do with all that data? Each field filled out, each click, each information on how often consumers use a product / service, when they use it or how they use it, everything gets translated into data-driven product/organization improvements, to provide better customer service or to serve up increasingly targeted advertisements. As the ‘free’ platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are becoming more expansive to maintain or to build, the advertising becomes bigger, especially because the investors are also expecting a return.

In order to protect your privacy consumers should require from organisations and governments that they stick to some self-regulating.
The Regulators

Motivating many consumers against a company (or a government) can be very difficult and cost a lot of time and effort. Fortunately, there are many different regulators that could contribute in protecting your privacy. An Ombudsman who represents the interest of the public can investigate complaints of maladministration or violation of (privacy) rights. In addition, one could go to court in case of serious violation of privacy rights by governments or organisations and try to change the law by provoking a precedent in court.

So, protecting your privacy all starts with awareness and knowing what is happening with the data you create every day. Once the awareness is created, it is important to take action if you do not agree with what is happening. Action can be to not use the services of such company anymore (although that might be very difficult with companies such as Facebook or Twitter). It can also mean to go to court and trying to provoke a precedent. In any case, as a consumer and a citizen we should be aware of what we share with whom and take action if we do not like what is happening with that data. Organisation on the other hand should do whatever it takes to protect the data they collect and to protect and respect the privacy of their customers. Regulators should also be aware of what is happening and take action when necessary. Together we can ensure that the privacy is protected as much as possible.

What do you think, how can you protect your privacy? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Image: Sohu.com
Image Credit: dizain / Shutterstock
Dr Mark van Rijmenam
Dr Mark van Rijmenam

Dr Mark van Rijmenam is The Digital Speaker. He is a future tech strategist who thinks about how technology changes organisations, society and the metaverse. Dr Mark van Rijmenam is an international keynote speaker, 4x author and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Datafloq and the author of the book on the metaverse: Step into the Metaverse: How the Immersive Internet Will Unlock a Trillion-Dollar Social Economy detailing what the metaverse is and how organizations and consumers can benefit from the immersive internet.

He is the publisher of the ‘f(x) = e^x‘ newsletter, read by thousands of executives, on the future of work and the organization of tomorrow. The Digital Speaker has spoken in 20 countries across the globe and collectively inspired over 100.000 managers, directors and C-level executives.

Dr Mark van Rijmenam is The Digital Speaker. He is a future tech strategist who thinks about how emerging technologies change organizations, society and the metaverse. Van Rijmenam is an international keynote speaker, 4x author and entrepreneur.

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