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When we consider big data, the first question most people have is “how big does data have to be to be considered big data?” I think the best way to illustrate the potential size of big data is through a contemporary example that many people have heard about.
The video game Fortnite is one of the largest and most successful video games of all time, with over 160 million active players worldwide and tens of millions of players each day. The most popular game mode is the battle royale, where 100 players are dropped into a large map and fight to be the last one standing. In each game there are hundreds of weapons, armors, and building materials that a player can use.
Epic Games, the publisher of Fortnite, tracks the actions of each player throughout each of the tens of thousands of games that are being played. The amount of data they gather is staggering, over two petabytes worth of gameplay data each day. To put that into perspective, most smartphones have a standard storage option of 64 gigabytes these days. To store two petabytes worth of data, you would need over 30,000 smartphones.
When people talk about Big Data, that's what they mean by big. Companies such as Google and Facebook gather even more data each day as their user count runs into the billions, with hundreds of millions of users each day. They also track their users in real time and in a much bigger environment (the real world).
The Privacy Question with Big Data
The example of Fortnite demonstrates the two key problems when organizations gather data on such a massive scale: 1) How to store that data, and 2) How to analyze that data into something useful. Storage is a problem that is relatively easily solved, you just buy more storage space. With cloud services (which are nothing more than thousands upon thousands of computers all linked together) you can get enough storage to hold all that data. The big problem comes with analysis. When you have data coming in such huge amounts, trying to pinpoint a single user and discover what they are doing is literally like finding a needle in a haystack. It is virtually impossible. The best we can do is take those reams of data and summarize them, compress them into statistics and regressions and models, and apply them broadly across large groups of users.
Companies like Google and Facebook take the tracking that Fortnite does in the game and applies it into real life. Your smartphone allows these companies to know your location, the websites you browse, the apps you use, when you sleep, when you work out, what kinds of foods you like, what you are doing throughout the day, etc. It seems like an enormous invasion of privacy, for these companies to gather all this information; however, what I would like to say is that it is not as bad as most people think. These companies can and have gathered enormous amounts of data, but the sheer size and scale of the data they have prevents them from finding anything specific about any individual user. You are just a part of a summarized number created by an algorithm that gets interpreted by an analyst. Your deepest, darkest secrets are not at risk.
The big privacy question that big data presents is one of permission. If these companies gather massive amounts of data without the permission of their users, then we have a violation of trust and privacy. The actual risks to the users are relatively low, but the breach of trust causes a great risk to the companies. They cannot and should not bury their data gathering practices within lengthy terms and conditions; these companies must be up front and tell people what types of data they are gathering and how they plan on using it, in terms that most people can understand. Infographics would be a great choice to communicate this information. These companies need to be upfront, otherwise the loss of trust will result in consumers moving away from their products, jeopardizing the entire business model of these services and causing a great loss to our way of life.