Big Data: Big Opportunity, Big Brother or Big Trouble?

09 December 2013

© David Fisher

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, explored the subject of big data in his public lecture at the Oxford Martin School on 5 December.

We now generate more data than ever before, he explained, thanks to our constant online interactions and monitoring of our habits by schemes such as loyalty cards. But while many are concerned about the security of their data, he said, its potential to be used for good was still not being fully harnessed. "The opportunities are absolutely fantastic. We can improve healthcare, improve education. It still frustrates me that we don't share records between primary care and hospitals. The challenge is how to balance the benefits with the risks around privacy."

'Safe havens', where data could only be accessed by accredited users, could be a powerful tool, he said, but the issue remained that "laws have borders, and data does not", meaning crimes using personal data could occur anywhere in the world, and this was challenge that needed to be addressed.

"The bottom line is that is very hard to guarantee privacy, but there is an enormous amount we can do to protect it. We have to manage the risk by reducing our exposure."