‘Big data’ becoming big business

The phrase “big data” often appears in newspapers and magazines these days. It refers to extremely large amounts of data that are being sent from personal computers, smartphones, car navigation systems, IC cards, etc., and then stored in massive data centers.

The progress of information technology has made it possible to both store and analyze huge amounts of data and the costs of doing so is steadily dropping as technology advances. As a result, companies are increasingly utilizing big data to expand their sales. For example, it is possible to identify the gender and age of people and what they buy using electronic money via their smartphones, debit cards, etc. Analyzed data provide corporations with significant clues regarding the needs and tastes of consumers. They can then develop new products and services to meet these needs and increase their business profits.

It is also expected that such data can be used for medicine and agriculture. Information-technology companies believe that the use of big data will bring great changes to various industries. But a major problem is the thorny issue of how to utilize this data while protecting people’s privacy.

Analysis of statements made in social media, for example, make it possible to find out what kinds of opinions people have about particular issues and what kinds of things interest them. The results of such analyses can be used for business purposes as well as election campaigns.

In weather forecasts, weather changes are predicted by analyzing a large amount of numeric data sent from weather satellites and other sources. Some weather information companies are trying to improve their forecast accuracy by utilizing information sent from their associate members’ mobile phones.

The white paper on information and communication, made public in July by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, estimates that if big data accumulated in the nation were fully utilized, it would create economic benefits worth ¥7.7 trillion a year through business cost reductions, increased sales, and a reduction of traffic congestion. The ministry analyzed the situation for the retail industry, manufacturing industry, agriculture, and the infrastructure industry, including expressways.

Use of big data has the potential to cause serious social problems. Storing and analyzing a large amount of information raises the very real possibility that people’s privacy could be infringed upon. Data containing not only people’s shopping history, but their financial status and even health history as well could be exploited by entities in both the private and public sector.

Recently East Japan Railway (JR Higashi Nihon) admitted that it had sold records of its prepaid Suica e-money and train-pass cards to business firms. It is imperative that rules be established to ensure that the companies concerned will properly handle personal information stored in their computer systems. The government should consider passing a law prohibits the commodification of data derived from e-money transactions without consumers’ knowledge and consent.