Facebook controversy: Love it or hate it, big data is here to stay

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Occasionally, I will buy a bag of apples from the local grocery store. Most often one can get through the bag without stumbling upon a sour apple, but occasionally, you’ll get a bad apple. It happens.

News this week that a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly obtained data of more than 50 million users is troubling, but it’s nothing more than a bad apple. Now there are calls to delete Facebook profiles and turn away from authorizing the respected outlets with our data. To that I say, resist.

Big data provides us with correlations that can be quite useful including predicting heart attacks and strokes, and predicting when a police officer may be at risk for a negative interaction with the public. It has been used to help improve graduation rates, and to reduce fraud. Of course, in marketing, big data is routinely used to better offer the goods and services consumers seek.

This, of course, only works if there are enough data points to define correlations and predict human behavior.

This happens on a much smaller level at your local grocery store. Every time you swipe a customer loyalty card, the grocer knows exactly what you are purchasing and pretty soon they’ll start understanding, perhaps even predicting, what you’ll purchase. It informs their efforts on how to stock shelves and what kind of coupons to deliver to you.

Some internet-ready appliances can alert you when you’re getting low on milk, eggs or even laundry detergent.

In short, we are living in a society that values big data and the conveniences that it affords us. As intelligent consumers, when we use Facebook or a loyalty card, we are making a tradeoff between privacy and the value we obtain.

Mark Zuckerberg made a statement Wednesday evening suggesting that it was up to Facebook to entrust the data that users have provided and if they couldn’t protect that data, they didn’t deserve us as customers. Zuckerberg is right. When you opt into Facebook, you agree to their terms and conditions. If those terms and conditions are unacceptable to you, do not use Facebook. In turn, if Facebook cannot protect your data, they should be held accountable.

In the Masters in Business Analytics program at Wake Forest University School of Business, the ethics of big data is a concept we have imbedded in our program. In our course Analytics in Society, we discuss data privacy, legal issues around data and ethical frameworks for evaluating ethical challenges in the collection and usage of big data. These important concepts should be a part of an analyst’s education.

Big data will continue to impact our society and the more accurate information we can provide, the better it will serve us.

Let’s not let one bad apple ruin it for the millions of other data points out there that are serving us well.