Don’t let pri­vacy back­lash ham­per big data progress

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By HE WEI in Shang­hai

‘Big data” is the catch­phrase of the day, ap­pear­ing at each and ev­ery tech con­fer­ence I have at­tended. China’s tech­nol­ogy pow­er­houses are investing bil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally in min­ing the mas­sive trove of con­sumer data, hop­ing to out­gun ri­vals and cash in on the ris­ing mid­dle class whose be­hav­ior is in­creas­ingly trans­par­ent and trace­able in the dig­i­tal space.

The pur­suit for such lu­cra­tive data put e-com­merce pow­er­house Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd and courier gi­ant SF Ex­press (Group) Co Ltd on a col­li­sion course in early June. The duo fought over the con­trol of con­sumer data gen­er­ated

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through Alibaba’s e-com­merce plat­forms and ended data shar­ing, de­lay­ing tens of thou­sands of parcels, a move which al­most sent the mar­ket into dis­ar­ray.

There­fore, I was not sur­prised when a friend of mine said he had failed to check the sta­tus of two boxes of man­goes or­dered via Taobao us­ing SF’s de­liv­ery ser­vices, be­cause the con­flict had sub­stan­tially af­fected ship­ments of fresh pro­duce.

Thanks to the co­or­di­na­tion of the State Post Bureau, the dis­pute was fi­nally re­solved on July 3, with the pair agree­ing to con­tinue data shar­ing. But the in­ci­dent un­der­pinned the ever-grow­ing red-hot ri­valry among China’s lead­ing tech play­ers to com­mand and lever­age data gen- er­ated through a host of on­line be­hav­ior.

For com­pa­nies, it is a thorny task to make smart use of the data to man­age op­er­a­tions, pre­dict de­mand and trim costs. But for con­sumers, it is an even more press­ing is­sue to guard their pri­vacy in the big data era.

By track­ing users across those sites with what the com­pany calls a “uni­fied ID,” Alibaba is now able to not only tai­lor prod­uct rec­om­men­da­tions to in­di­vid­ual users, but also per­son­al­ize the store­fronts they visit ac­cord­ing to their brows­ing and buy­ing habits. So what I get to see when brows­ing the shop­ping app might be to­tally dif­fer­ent from that of my friends.

But when you give it a sec­ond thought, cus­tom­ized ads pro­mo­tions based on your age, gen­der, shop­ping pref­er­ence and even credit records are es­sen­tially an in­tru­sion into your pri­vacy. Even with­out mak­ing the ef­fort to know your name, by and large, ev­ery­thing about you is out there, leav­ing com­put­ers cal­cu­lat­ing the odds of your pur­chas­ing a lim­ited edi­tion of branded bag.

It equally ap­plies to sce­nar­ios such as brows­ing and shar­ing posts on WeChat, tip­ping my pre­ferred free­lancers, look­ing up restau­rant re­views on lo­cal ser­vice provider Dian­ping and search­ing for the best route via Baidu Map. At the end of the day, my on­line be­hav­ior only re­in­forces the ma­chine’s self-learn­ing abil­ity un­til it gets smart enough to know me bet­ter than my­self.

Last month, ex­ec­u­tives of Ali­pay, China’s pop­u­lar e-wal­let, told a tech con­fer­ence in Shang­hai that they have teamed up with public se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties to al­low for quick and smooth ho­tel check-in and check­out ser­vices us­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies.

Yet the po­ten­tial sur­veil­lance pos­si­bil­i­ties of the tech­nol­ogy still haunt me: now they would know I like to spend week­ends in Hangzhou, and I get hun­gry eas­ily at night be­cause I fin­ished all three Snick­ers in the mini bar.

Today, our in­ter­ac­tions be­come public by de­fault on­line, but pri­vate by ef­fort.

Con­cerns over pri­vacy in­fringe­ment has led to a se­ries of ef­forts to curb the use of per­sonal data in many coun­tries. For in­stance, the European Union has also cre­ated the no­tion of a “right to be for­got­ten” and “data porta­bil­ity”, which al­lows EU res­i­dents to re­quest the re­moval of search re­sults that they feel link to out­dated or ir­rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion about them­selves on a coun­try-by-coun­try ba­sis.

China is also ramp­ing up its ef­fort in data pro­tec­tion through law en­force­ment, yet there is still a long way to go. Af­ter all, we’re on the cusp of a golden age of us­ing data in ev­ery field from busi­ness to public health. Don’t let the pri­vacy back­lash ham­per such progress.

Con­tact the writer at hewei@ chi­

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