Whenever you search for something on the internet, read a news article, scroll through Social Media, or shop online, your data is being collected. Advances in technology have enabled these seemingly insignificant pieces of individual information to be gathered, stored, analyzed, and bought or shared in both the public and private sectors.[1] This raises the question of what exactly the world of Big Data means for individual privacy.

Big Data & Individual Privacy

Individual privacy is mainly impacted through private companies and government use of Big Data. Private companies such as Facebook or Google are always collecting data on who you are, what you like, what you pay attention to, where you are, and other aspects of your online presence.[2] Companies such as Google manage enormous amounts of data to understand any information relevant to their clients. For example, if a private company were interested in the influence their products had on social media, they would work with a data company to gather information and determine the influence and predict where that company should target its advertising.

The upside to this type of enormous data collection and analysis is the convenience it lends to everyday life. Individuals can access their cloud storage anywhere in the world, transfer anything from photos to money with the tap of a button, and often you can get personalized browser recommendations or ads. The companies providing Big Data gathering and analysis offer a fantastic product that both individuals and companies want because, frankly, it makes life easier. However, as with most benefits, there can be enormous drawbacks.

Big Data & Companies

The reason Big Data is such an engrossing topic at the moment is because of its relevance to most people around the world. Globalization is happening at a rapid pace, which means that in conjunction with more interconnectedness, companies are expanding rapidly to places all around the world. This, at first glance, is beneficial – more connections, ease of communication, open diplomatic channels, greater knowledge sharing, etc. However, when companies that are based in one country, such as Facebook or Google (both based in the USA), expand their user base and relations to other countries, it is easier for other countries to exploit the everyday lives of individuals around the world. Social Media is an excellent example of this. In 2016, the Russian meddling in the US elections was especially apparent on Facebook and Twitter through a series of targeted advertisements and digital marketing focused on promoting one Presidential candidate over another.[3] Many people were subject to ads, news articles, and a constant influx of information on their social media and internet searches – making it easier for certain ideas to spread and misinformation to expand.

Another way Big Data and Data Mining can negatively impact individuals’ privacy is by exploiting personal information and committing identity fraud, conducting open source background data searches, and various other personal information threats. For example, in 2019 when CapitalOne was hacked, 100 million records were stolen including personal and financial information, leaving millions of people vulnerable to identity theft.[4] Another example from 2018 when Facebook was hacked and 50 million users’ information was revealed to third parties showed the vulnerability of sharing our personal information online.[5] The exploitation and manipulation of individual data is an enormous threat that Big Data companies often overlook in the name of fiscal gain or convenience.

Big Data & Government

In addition to private companies conducting enormous data-mining efforts, it is true that many governments collect a multitude of data themselves, often for the main purpose of running their office or branch of the government. Because of this, if and when there is a data breach in most governments, it is large and can be very destructive. For example, when China hacked the US Pentagon contractor networks multiple times[6] or the US Military breach that impacted 200,000 military service members[7] personal information and the information from their contacts and family members. This targeting of individuals based on where they work in governments is a problem for national security and should be approached as a national security threat.

While there are definitely risks associated in private companies, risks to personal security and privacy are often potentially larger in the private sector than most government agencies’ risks due to government oversight – with obvious exceptions. As an example, the US National Security Agency conducts data mining on private citizens’ phones, emails, etc., to analyze and prevent instances of terrorism. While there is some ambiguity about the methods or the final use of the data, the end goal is something most people can get behind and there are government checks and regulations that apply to how data is gathered and what it can be used for.[8] These checks and regulations are even more apparent when multiple countries join together, such as in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).[9] While it is not perfect, there are multiple regulations for member governments to prevent misuse or oversight in data mining, and Big Data analysis is carefully monitored.[10]


5G is a hot topic lately, and relates to Big Data intrinsically. 5G provides a higher level of connection (you can, for instance, download an entire blu-ray movie onto your phone in seconds) and provides faster and higher quality data usage to personal handheld telecommunication devices by significantly increasing the speed at which you do everything. Companies like Verizon and T-Moble have their own 5G networks, but only a few models of cellphones or other handheld devices can use it. This advance is the next logical step in individual devices around the world, and brings with it a host of opportunities and individual privacy threats.

One of the major threats regarding 5G networks is the monopoly certain countries and/or companies have on it. China, for example, has been leading the market for all things related to 5G. While other countries have made advancements in this area, many companies have been outsourcing a lot of wireless things such as cell coverage, physical tower equipment, and other telecommunications to places like China.[11]

This is a National Security issue across the board because if one country developed technology and a different country is using it (for example, China developed 5G and the US and European countries using it), the developer country could potentially monitor or data-mine anything coming through the 5G network.[12] The equipment could have a monitoring piece added or if they have access to the raw data coming through the connection the country could pull that and use it for their own means.[13] In addition to national security risks, there are significant risks for individuals in a similar vein to the threats that Big Data pose – identity theft, personal information loss, and other risks.

Big Data, Data Mining, and 5G all contribute benefits to everyday lives. However, the question of how they relate to and what must be done to protect personal information security must be addressed.

Note from the Team

Many of the major social media companies and tech giants are American companies. These include Facebook, who owns Instagram, Whatsapp, Messenger; Google, who owns YouTube and Gmail; and Twitter. The interconnected relationships between individuals, private corporations and the American government are affecting those on the global stage. The desire to promote American exceptionalism and economic dominance has superseded the consideration of the implications that social media and technology might have on society. This unchecked development has created a virulent situation, blurring the lines between news and entertainment and creating a hellscape of fake news, manipulation and fostering an environment where radical conspiracy theories and the far-right can thrive. 

Social media was once seen as a facilitator of democratic values such as freedom of speech and expression, and freedom from undue censorship. Furthermore, social media is still seen as a conduit between constituents and their elected officials, providing another channel where citizens can express their grievances and mobilize. Yet, this notion is being challenged by a rise in extremist political views on both ends of the ideological spectrum—a rise partially brought on by social media algorithms. Social media firms are at their core companies trying to sell individuals a product, which is the continued use of a particular platform. The capitalist promotion of technology companies has come before the establishing of policies for monitoring, evaluation and accountability. This “easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” attitude in regard to Silicon Valley has had irreversible implications for our democracy. As noted in Unit 3, social media has played a massive role in the rise of conspiracy theories like QAnon. These companies have designed their product to keep the user engaged – to keep them clicking and scrolling and continually exposed to new content. If the algorithm thinks that a user likes dogs, their feed will be filled with photos of dogs and advertisements for pet products. But algorithms cannot differentiate between what is real news, and what is fake news and what may be potentially harmful. 

Questions for Critical Thinking

  1. How can data collection help us/harm us? What policy steps can be taken to protect individual security? 
  2. Are their collective benefits to national security through data collection? If so, what is a reasonable price to individual security? 
  3. What is the digital divide and how can cellular connectivity change this phenomenon?
  4. Do you think caution should be exercised regarding 5G technology since most of the advances are emerging from China?
  5. Do the ends justify the means for Big Data?

Gender Component

The gender analysis of this topic is nuanced. Big Data is a tool used by companies, individuals, and governments to create knowledge-based datasets for actions, insights, and predictions on individuals’ lives. One of the biggest ways that Big Data relates to gender is through gender analysis, or sex-disaggregated data.

Traditionally, there are gaps in how data is gathered and analyzed, and that typically means women (and minorities of different sexes and races) are often excluded in the process or casually overlooked and the resulting actions, or policies, made from those datasets exclude women.[1] This has an enormous impact on the everyday lives of women, and while there have been efforts to combat this gap in sex-disaggregated data and statistics, such as the United Nations’ gender indicators[2], and recognition that comprehensive datasets must include women and others’ experiences as well as men’s, progress has been slow.[3] Big Data is often less concerned with a focus on sex-disaggregated data or gender analysis. This is unfortunate because a comprehensive understanding cannot be achieved without understanding all aspects of the data and recognizing potential biases.[4] There is an enormous opportunity for those that collect and manage Big Data, or those that use Big Data to pursue their individual agendas to incorporate a gender perspective and promote relevant datasets to governments, companies, and individuals.[5]

Although Big Data poses threats to individual privacy which are relevant to women and gender analysis, there is an opportunity for many companies, governments, and individuals to use Big Data to examine the gender balance of their respective goals, and conduct a gender analysis on actions.[6] Additionally, through emerging opportunities for employment or advancement in careers in 5G telecommunications, there are often opportunities for career advancement for women in this area.[7]


5G: 5G is the next generation (and fifth) of communications. 5G is essentially an upgrade from our current level of communications and promises increased connectivity and speed between devices. The applications of 5G are what make it so revolutionary. With increased speed between devices, doctors can perform remote surgeries, cars can operate without human drivers and more.

5G Conspiracy Theories: There has been a flurry of conspiracy theories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these theories relate back to the advancement of 5G. These claims have no scientific backing and encompass a wide range of theories. Some assert that 5G technology causes the human body to react in a way similar to symptoms of the coronavirus while others see lockdown as a way for governments to install 5G networks. Some of these theories relate back to other high-level conspiracy theories, such as the anti-vaxx movement and even QAnon. Social media has been instrumental in spreading these theories and panic over 5G. These theories are dangerous as they both prompt distrust of 5G and underplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bandwidth: “a range within a band of wavelengths, frequencies, or energies”

Big Data: The growth in data collection associated with scientific phenomena, business operations, and government activities (e.g., marketing, quality control, statistical auditing, forecasting, etc.) has been remarkable over the past decade. This growth is due, in part, to technology now capable of capturing lots of data at a high rate, such as information- sensing mobile devices, cameras, radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers, and wireless sensor networks. In fact, the term “Big Data” is now commonly used by compa- nies to describe this wealth of information.

Blockchain: ” a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network”

Cloud Computing: “cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs over the internet instead of your computer’s hard drive”

Contact Tracing COVID-19: The COVID-19 pandemic has produced contact tracing apps in an effort to help individuals find out if they have been potentially exposed to the virus. However, these apps have raised privacy concerns as individuals are concerned that these apps can steal personal data stored on an individual’s phone. Many of these apos work by bluetooth, transmitting an encrypted signal to others phone with the app installed nearby. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they will need to manually input it into their app and their app will send a notification to those it has come in contact with. Personal information is not collected, although fears that it will be has stopped many individuals from using these apps.

Cryptocurrency: “any form of currency that only exists digitally, that usually has no central issuing or regulating authority but instead uses a decentralized system to record transactions and manage the issuance of new units, and that relies on cryptography to prevent counterfeiting and fraudulent transactions” 

Data: “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation”. In the context of cybersecurity, data typically refers to individuals. This is information about likes and dislikes, age, career, hobbies, location, political affiliation etc.

Data mining: “Data mining, also called knowledge discovery in databases, in computer science, the process of discovering interesting and useful patterns and relationships in large volumes of data.”

Encryption: Encryption is a process which protects a personal data by making sure that it is only available when a “key” has been entered.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): “The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the toughest privacy and security law in the world. Though it was drafted and passed by the European Union (EU), it imposes obligations onto organizations anywhere, so long as they target or collect data related to people in the EU. The regulation was put into effect on May 25, 2018. The GDPR will levy harsh fines against those who violate its privacy and security standards, with penalties reaching into the tens of millions of euros.”

Huawei: Huawei is a Chinese company, which is currently leading the world in 5G technology and applications. The United States has banned Huawei over fears that the devices could be used as spyware because of the 5G capability. There are concerns that hackers can use the 5G capabilities as an entry point into gathering sensitive information. Other countries like Australia and Canada have followed the US’ lead. However, Huawei does lead the world in 5G capabilities and while the US and other countries are trying to catch up, Huawei still dominates global 5G markets

Internet of Things: The internet of things refers to anything connected to the internet. Many devices connected to the internet communicate with each other and collect data.

Metadata: “data that provides information about other data”

TikTok and WeChat Ban Attempt: In September 2020, the Trump Administration announced that it would be banning TikTok and WeChat, two very popular Chinese owned apps. The apps themselves do not raise much concern; TikTok is a short video platform used primarily by teens to share jokes and dances and WeChat is used as an alternative to traditional text messaging. However, the Trump Administration saw both TikTok and WeChat as security concerns. Both these apps collect data about their users. Additionally, there are concerns about TikTok being used to spread misinformation. However, given the Huawei ban, the attempt at banning TikTok and WeChat was in part due to US-China relations and was influenced by China’s restrictions on US companies.