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Will big data prove to be a boon or a bane? ©AP Images/ European Union-EP 

Big data refers to large quantities of data collected from sources such as sensors and the internet. They can be used to improve decision-making and create better products, however they also pose challenges to fundamental rights such as privacy and data protection. Parliament's civil liberties committee discussed the risks and opportunities of using big data on Monday, while MEP Ana Gomes is drafting an own-initiative report on the issue, which MEPs will vote on during a future plenary session.

Sophisticated analytics can make use of large quantities of data to facilitate decisions in areas such as marketing and advertising, retail, urban planning, healthcare, transport and the environment. In addition companies can use the information to offer products only to those who need them and only when they need it. They can also provide people with information adapted to their specific needs and situation, such as what route to take, what insurance to take or what credit is available to them.


The use of big data is creating lucrative opportunities. By 2017, the big data market is expected to reach €50 billion and create 3.75 million new jobs.


During the civil liberties committee meeting on 26 September, Gomes, a Portuguese member of the S&D group, said: “Thriving data-driven economy represents an opportunity for growth and employment, including by enabling new business models and services and improved productivity."


However, Gomes stressed that big data can also pose significant risks and challenges, particularly as regards fundamental rights, including privacy and data protection: “Some people actually pretend big data is just about statistics based on huge databases. But this is not traditional statistics because at the basis of these databases are individual data that need protection.”


The mass collection and analysis of data could make people like they are being constantly monitored, especially after revelations about NSA mass surveillance by Edward Snowden. There is also the risk of a security breach leading to sensitive data being disclosed or the danger of personal data being shared without the permission of the person involved. Last but not least, people might be refused services on the basis of data collected about them.


Referring to the report on big data she is working on, Gomes said: “We need in our report to focus on the transparency with regard to the value and use of collected data, management rules and the ways in which the data are collected and processed, and emphasise that individuals should have up to date meaningful right of access to information about the processing of their data.”