Big data and Big Brother – perhaps not only in China?

Who controls data that users create on social media? In China, the State keeps tabs on most things. In the US it is the private corporations – or is it the NSA? In Sweden and the EU, discussions are ongoing on how to regulate online data and protect users’ privacy.

Researchers in Lund are now looking for collaborators – preferably in computer science – to compare how the use of data, including big data, is regulated on three different continents.

Marina Svensson and Stefan Brehm are researchers at Lund University’s Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, and Barbara Schulte is a researcher at the Department of Sociology. They are all active in the Digital China research project, and are busy planning a new interdisciplinary project. They want to take a broad look at how China, the US and Sweden/the EU use and control the digital footprints that people leave on the internet, in particular on social media.

“We believe that the systems for data regulation, i.e. legislation that regulates how data is stored and how accessible and transparent it is, and perceptions of privacy and security online depend on economic and political structures, as well as on how civil society has developed.”

In Sweden there are discussions on the privacy concerns surrounding big data. There are no such discussions in China, but there is interest in exploiting the hype around big data for commercial purposes and to strengthen research in engineering and life science. In the US, there are strong voices in civil society that are fighting for greater transparency and freedom on the internet.

However, the differences may not be as great as they at first appear, according to the researchers.

“China has its own social media platforms that are controlled by the State. There is a risk that big data could help the authorities to better monitor the population. Yet Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA reveal that the US also uses and collects data about its citizens to an extent that invades personal privacy. In Sweden and the EU there are attempts to introduce regulations, but since the major culprits are based elsewhere it is difficult to protect citizens.”

Like sociology of law researcher Stefan Larsson (see related article), the researchers believe that interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary to carry out the project.

“We are looking for partners both within our university and internationally. It is not easy to carry out interdisciplinary and comparative projects. Many people think we only study China, but our perspective is broader than that. It is important to have research that critically examines and compares the social and ethical challenges of big data in other countries.”

Text: Britta Collberg

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