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It's Time To Stop Demonizing Big Data

Information gleaned from digital sources must be used in strict accordance with the law. But it's too useful to simply vilify and disregard.

Data gathering in Toronto
Data gathering in Toronto
Sebastián Halperín*


BUENOS AIRES — Recent actions taken in response to the leaking of Facebook data offer a good opportunity to shed a bit of light on the development of new — and often demonized — data processing and analysis technologies.

Advances made in information management systems from multiple sources offer us resources that, until very recently, were unimaginable. The possibility of using vast quantities of data to identifying groups of individuals that share patterns of behavior has become a precious and strategic supply-side component for many organizations. We must add to this the possibility of integrating various information sources that can contribute to decision-making.

This is where Big Data offers resources that are increasingly important in both business and public administration. In places like Estonia, for example, it is being used to identify fraudulent activities relating to tax evasion or money laundering. In England, Big Data is helping shape plans to redevelop London's public transport.

For obvious reasons, researchers using these technologies must respect the strictest ethical standards. Also, those standards need to be enforced. But we shouldn't start by simply demonizing such technologies with Big Brother references and warnings about their potential for social control. We can criticize Big Data, in other words, and must pay due attention to the possible consequences of its inappropriate use. But we also need to consider its benefits and embrace it.

But we shouldn't think of Big Data as synonymous with illegality, because it's not.

Like in all sectors, polling professionals and market researchers must adhere to ethnical codes and procedures. They're also subject to the scrutiny of various national and international bodies, which set limits on their activities and the tools they use. And that's a good thing. Bodies like WAPOR, which has offices in Buenos Aires, or ESOMAR, a European agency, set basic norms regarding confidentiality in use of information and non-divulgence of the identity of participants in polls or studies. More recently they've updated their rules to encompass the impact of new technologies on research.

Photo: Ecole Polytechnique/Flickr

Certainly, much remains to be done regarding personal data protection and optimization of accountability procedures by organizations handling this mass of information. It's crucial, for example, that users be given necessary assurances in terms of respecting personal identities when it comes to processing or keeping their information, for example through agreement requests.

But we shouldn't think of Big Data as synonymous with illegality, because it's not. To change that perception, we ought to stop with the "to be or not to be" type of debate and instead ask more constructive questions, such as how to develop the technology to meet the demands of new challenges.

*The author is a sociologist, political scientist and market researcher.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Will Winter Crack The Western Alliance In Ukraine?

Kyiv's troops are facing bitter cold and snow on the frontline, but the coming season also poses longer term political questions for Ukraine's allies. It may be now or never.

Ukraine soldier in winer firing a large canon with snow falling

Ukraine soldier firing a large cannon in winter.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Weather is a weapon of war. And one place where that’s undoubtedly true right now is Ukraine. A record cold wave has gripped the country in recent days, with violent winds in the south that have cut off electricity of areas under both Russian and Ukrainian control. It's a nightmare for troops on the frontline, and survival itself is at stake, with supplies and movement cut off.

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This is the reality of winter warfare in this part of Europe, and important in both tactical and strategic terms. What Ukraine fears most in these circumstances are Russian missile or drone attacks on energy infrastructures, designed to plunge civilian populations into cold and darkness.

The Ukrainian General Staff took advantage of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's visit to Kyiv to ask the West to provide as many air defense systems as possible to protect these vital infrastructures. According to Kyiv, 90% of Russian missile launches are intercepted; but Ukraine claims that Moscow has received new weapon deliveries from North Korea and Iran, and has large amounts of stocks to strike Ukraine in the coming weeks.

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