Digital technologies afford unprecedented possibilities to capture, store and analyze the data we produce by accessing the Internet every day. From websites, apps, social media and other sources we take pictures, share our thoughts and conduct business over the Internet, touching points and major companies that record our every move, also known as “big data”. For scientists, big data opens up new opportunities to better understand various diseases and could potentially help in finding new cures. In social sciences, scholars have used big data to make sense of different aspects of human behavior. Despite these opportunities, the rise of big data entails significant privacy concerns as digital technologies make it exceptionally easy to collect sensitive information about individuals and communities. Earlier this month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group of leading engineers and scientists, released the report Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective that addresses the privacy concerns arising out of big data collection. According to the report, big data not only raises new challenges to individual privacy by integrating data from multiple sources, but also by the emergence of new analytical tools allowing for more sophisticated inferences about individuals. The report acknowledges that minority groups are especially vulnerable to these privacy concerns as wrong inferences drawn from data could negatively impact whole communities.
In the age of big data, LGBT individuals are also more susceptible to the following three privacy concerns discussed in the report.
I. Know What You’re Signing Up For: Frequently, online users fail to familiarize themselves with privacy policies before signing up for social media platforms and other online services, allowing the intermediaries to collect and release private information to third parties. Given the importance of Internet technologies in their daily lives, LGBT individuals may have to pay a high price for using certain platforms as they are oftentimes required to disclose sensitive information like sexual orientation or gender identity.
II. You Could Be Inadvertently Outed: Similarly, the ”public disclosure of inferred private facts” (PCAST, 2014, p.7) is making LGBT individuals a vulnerable target of intermediaries’ data collection procedures. For instance, a website or application collecting sensitive data like sexual orientation can reserve the right to disclose this information to third party platforms like advertisers. This sensitive information can then be used by advertisers to target LGBT individuals with tailored ads. As these ads could allow for inferences about sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT individuals could be involuntarily outed to their networks.
III. Is The Data As Random As They Claim?: A central value of privacy, the rise of big data also poses a great risk to anonymity as individuals could be “re-identified” by the collected data. For LGBT individuals living in less accepting environments, losing the ability to use Internet technologies anonymously can negatively impact their access to communication platforms and critical information like sexual health information. The rise of big data collection and analysis poses both opportunities and risks for the LGBT community as well as larger society. The policy frameworks addressing the data collection by intermediaries will greatly impact whether the new wealth of information will be used to the advantage or disadvantage of the LGBT community. Addressing the need for new policy frameworks in the age of big data, the engineers and scientists of PCAST emphasize that these policies should revolve around questions of how data is used rather than how it is collected and analyzed. In order to protect the privacy of LGBT individuals and other marginalized communities, policies should specifically address the disclosure of sensitive information like sexual orientation or gender identity. The concern over anonymous use of websites and applications poses a challenge to policy-makers. While marginalized groups like the LGBT community may greatly benefit from online anonymity, it has also been argued that real name identification is critical in combating cyberbullying and online harassment. This dilemma between online anonymity and safety is only one example for the many challenges entailed by the advent of big data.