World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014

  • The Big Brother Problem

    Wednesday 22nd January 2014 - 10:30am - 11:30am CET

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  • What are the consequences of growing public alarm over personal privacy, data security and the lack of transparency in the gathering of data by public and private organizations?

    The Issue

    The “Big Brother” problem once pertained to government surveillance and restriction of citizens’ privacy, but today companies are primary players in debates about the collection of personal information. Failure to manage data collection properly not only threatens the basic human right to privacy, but it also causes societies to be less safe and companies to forfeit trust of their customers. Respect for the rule of law, transparency and clear guidelines regarding data use must be central to the collection of digital information.

    The Consequences

    The stakes for protecting data privacy are high for governments, companies and the basic rights of society. Corporate leaders and policy-makers generally agreed that governments have legitimate claims to request data from companies. However, protocols such as subpoenas, clear legislation related to data protection and judicial oversight allow companies to comply with such requests without fearing retaliation or the betrayal of customer trust.

    Companies are at the forefront of creating tools for data collection, storing sensitive information about customers and developing new use of digital information in areas such as e-health, e-learning and e-government. However, failure to manage data responsibly – in terms of both collection and use – can destroy a company’s reputation. Transparency is central to effective data management, but it’s not enough. For example, click-through contracts with word counts higher than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are a poor format for building user trust. Being proactive in terms of alerting customers about security breaches and acknowledging data collection practices can minimize future problems for companies.

    As technology enables more of people’s lives to be captured and stored digitally – from credit card purchases to medical records – the need for data protection becomes central to the human right to privacy. The legal contexts for gathering and using data vary dramatically from the United States and Europe to countries with low freedom of information and developing nations with low levels of Internet penetration. While no single formula for protecting privacy can apply to these varied contexts, upholding the rule of law and creating transparent processes for data collection and use is the most promising path toward avoiding potential abuses of the Big Brother surveillance state or corporation.

    Options for Action

    Companies can be proactive in data security by developing new data processes and protocols. For example, establishing a privacy ombudsman – as some media companies have done for journalistic ethics – could offer customers a forum for resolving conflicts. Independent data auditing boards could also certify corporate privacy protection while still protecting companies’ proprietary information and algorithms. Privacy boards could oversee management and collection of consumer data, much as corporate boards are accountable for the interests of shareholders.

    Governments can improve data protection by taking greater care in preserving the anonymity of data, reducing over-collection and setting clear guidelines for the way they collect and use personal data. Subpoenas, judicial procedures and straightforward legislation are essential to protecting the rule of law and creating an environment in which both companies and users can maximize the potential of big data.

    Significant Quotes

    “In the US, we are collecting far too much information, and it is not making us safer.”
    Patrick J. Leahy, Senator from Vermont (Democrat), USA

    “This question of the right to privacy must be one of the defining issues of our time.”
    Salil Shetty, Secretary-General, Amnesty International, United Kingdom; Global Agenda Council on the Role of Civil Society


    This summary was written by Mary Bridges. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum. 


  • Shyam Sankar Shyam Sankar
    President, Palantir Technologies, USA

    BSc, Electrical & Computer Eng., Cornell; MSc, Mgmt Science and Eng, Stanford. Former Director, Busi...

  • Bradford L. Smith Bradford L. Smith
    President and Chief Legal Officer, Microsoft Corporation, USA

    Leads Microsoft’s legal work, intellectual property portfolio, patent licensing business, governme...

  • Salil Shetty Salil Shetty
    Secretary-General, Amnesty International, United Kingdom

    Studies in Advanced Accounting and Cost Accounting, Bangalore University; MBA, Indian Institute of M...

  • Augie K. Fabela II Augie K. Fabela II
    Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus, VimpelCom, Netherlands

    BA and MA in International Relations and Policy Studies, Stanford University. Co-Founder, VimpelCom,...

  • Patrick J. Leahy Patrick J. Leahy
    Senator from Vermont (Democrat), USA

    1961, graduate, Saint Michael's College, Colchester; 1964, Juris Doctor, Georgetown University Law C...

  • Orit Gadiesh Orit Gadiesh
    Chairman, Bain & Company, USA

    BA (Hons) in Psychology, Hebrew University; MBA and Baker Scholar, Harvard Business School. Since 19...

Moderated by

  • Jonathan Zittrain Jonathan Zittrain
    Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard University, USA

    BSc in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, Yale; MPA, JD, Harvard. 1986-90, Editorial Col...