Remember when a small mistake you made early in your life could be forgotten with the passage of time? No longer! Big data remembers it all.

Time was if you had a minor offence as a teenager, like shoplifting, it would eventually disappear, but with big data, from Facebook posts to blog entries to Instagram photos to comments in Google results to tweets, even minor mistakes will haunt you until the end of your life.

(And yes, you can remove yourself from Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and ask Google to scrub its databases, but those are isolated areas and it’s a tedious process.)

We all generate tonnes of information that’s added to big data whenever we shop, drive, send emails, watch TV, eat, exercise or use our smartphones, but where does it all lead to? Where is the balance between the need for information and privacy?

Since big data knows about our friends and preferences, so do advertisers – Target, for example, once sent discount coupons for an expectant mother to a teenager whose family had not yet learned she was pregnant.

And it’s only going to get worse! Already, the majority of electronics and department stores deal only in “smart” TVs, phones, cars and appliances. We have arrived at a point where it is difficult to find “dumb” devices that don’t collect data.

Then there is software like IBM’s Watson-powered Personality Insights, which can build a detailed profile of you based on a 200-word bio.

Even the bedroom isn’t private: Witness the recently-settled lawsuit involving an Ottawa-based sex toy maker’s “snooping vibrator,” which resulted in a $3.75 million USD payout and the company agreeing to destroy the personal information it had collected from users.

In its current form, big data deprives us of anonymity. There are some basic steps you can take to reduce the information big data collects about you, such as not using public Wi-Fi, social media or Dropbox; declining cookies; or using alternative search engines and browsers. But the key tool that is needed is effective privacy legislation.

While the Canadian federal privacy law for the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) governs how private sector organizations can collect, use and disclose personal information, it does not have a clause guaranteeing the right of an individual to erase or “forget” personal data that affects his or her well-being. The European Union law (General Data Protection Regulation, adopted in April 2016) does, while U.S. laws vary by state and none guarantee the right to be forgotten. The worldwide picture doesn’t look much better, as this Forrester diagram shows.

As a first and second step, PIPEDA needs to include a “forget me” clause and its enforcement needs to be strengthened. Otherwise, Orwell’s vision of 1984 will come true and personal privacy will be a thing of the past.

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