Michelle Yang / Sun Contributor

Prof. Helen Nissenbaum, information science, examined issues with "big data exceptionalism" at a colloquium on Tuesday.

September 26, 2018

Cornell Tech Professor Urges Caution in Deregulating Data Collection

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Prof. Helen Nissenbaum, information science, explained at a colloquium on Tuesday that deregulation of the collection of big data can have negative implications.

The colloquium is part of a combined course and public lecture series that focuses on “fundamental questions concerning artificial intelligence” and the desire for firmer policy directing A.I., according to the event page.

“If you have a powerful actor that has a lot of information about you and could use this information, that is power over you and that is unacceptable,” said Nissenbaum, who teaches at Cornell Tech.

In the lecture titled “Must Privacy Give Way to Use Regulations?,” Nissenbaum urged caution in regards to data collection and particularly towards the idea of big data exceptionalism.

“Big data exceptionalism is the proposition that data collection should be deregulated and instead regulation should focus on use,” Nissenbaum said.

Nissenbaum pushed back against the assertion of BDE that only how companies use data, and not how data is collected, should be regulated. She argued that there is a necessary distinction between the collection of the data and the usage of this collected data.

She said that it is not always clear where that line is. While collection and usage may seem straightforward, there are multiple steps between those two ends of the spectrum that fall into a gray area. There are various actions between the collection of data and its application or usage, and BDE does not have a clear stance on which of those steps would be subject to regulation, Nissenbaum explained.

It is unclear where the line on deregulation would fall and what would be considered protected under the Constitution, leading to abuse of such power, according to Nissenbaum.

Data surveillance companies could abuse the lack of distinction to profit and misuse the information if the regulations are not handled correctly, Nissenbaum said.

She warned that widespread data collection could lead to consolidation of power.

“A handful of actors have access to large concentrations of data and they are using the data to promote their interests,” she said. “Normally, that itself is not the problem, until their interests go against not only the users but undermine some of the fundamental institutions of society.”