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Big data makes life easier but also poses risks

By Sun Yunchuan/Zhang Junsheng | China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-30 07:06


Big data and artificial intelligence technologies have brought about profound changes in the way people live and work. For example, the health QR codes in green, yellow and red-based on a mobile phone user's physical movements which determine whether he or she poses a contagion risk-are the result of big data.

After a new cluster of coronavirus infections was detected in Xinfadi wholesale market in Beijing on June 11, big data helped the authorities trace people's digital footprints and electronic payments and identify those who had visited Xinfadi during the previous days. Subsequently, such people were informed through messages to undergo nucleic acid test before venturing into public places.

Since Xinfadi is the largest wholesale market for fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood in Beijing, thousands of people visit it every day. It would be nearly impossible to identify all those who visited the market in a day, let alone in a week or more, without using big data. Big data offered critical and real-time information on the visitors and thus helped the government take effective measures to contain the new outbreak.

On the macro level, big data can help determine the distribution pattern of the virus in countries and regions around the world, as well as in provinces and cities in China. By closely monitoring the spread of the pandemic with the help of big data, governments can gauge the trend and issue early warnings. Some navigation maps on mobile phones already show the level of risk a community faces based on its size and the number of infections, significantly reducing the chances of people venturing near such communities by accident and risking infection.

And on the micro level, by tracking individuals' movements outdoors, big data will help stringent control measures, including quarantine, to be targeted at high-and medium-risk areas, and allowing other areas to function normally so local economies do not suffer any further damage. While protecting people's lives and health, big data-enabled precise virus-tracking system can help reboot the economy and set it on the path to recovery.

Yet an increasing number of people are worried that big data would enable criminals to misuse their personal information and compromise their privacy. As information and communications technology advances in China, nearly every aspect of a normal person's life and work is virtually under monitoring, as his or her personal information such as transportation history, home and workplace address, social networking, property, hobby and even health condition is recorded on various websites and mobile apps. Which means people have little individual privacy-and big data could pose a threat to their life and property, especially if criminals use the information to their advantage.

Of late, many Beijing residents were astonished to receive phone calls or messages informing them of their recent travel to high-risk areas, even though many of them just passed by such an area in a vehicle. Their astonishment shows they are worried that even if some of those information are leaked and exploited by criminals, it could fuel crimes such as kidnapping, theft, fraud and/or extortion. Media reports have already highlighted some online stores threatening to disclose the personal information of customers who wrote bad reviews of their products or services. Leakage of personal data could also prompt criminals to commit telecom frauds and financial scams.

In other words, advanced technology is a double-edged sword-it can make life more convenient but also create more risks and uncertainties. It is therefore important to differentiate between the use of big data for public good and its misuse/abuse to commit frauds and other crimes. And to differentiate between the two, proper collaboration among governments, institutions, online enterprises and the public is necessary.

First, while using big data to improve governance, the government, which has access to the personal information of millions of people, should enact a series of policies and regulations to further tighten supervision on the usage of database and prevent the leakage of people's personal information.

Second, the government should also take measures to monitor enterprises that gather and use customers' data, and establish a privacy-protection mechanism to eliminate the imparity clauses set by the enterprises to obtain people's personal information before letting them avail of their services. For those companies and organizations that break the rules, the government should make a blacklist to alert users to keep away from them.

And third, there is a need to establish a traceability system to identify the source of information leakage and abuse, and hold institutions and individuals that violate users' privacy legally accountable. Indeed, big data should be used to fight the pandemic and improve people's lives and health, but the government should also take measures to minimize potential risks posed by big data.

Sun Yunchuan is a professor at the International Institute of Big Data in Finance and Business School, Beijing Normal University. And Zhang Junsheng is a research fellow at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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