The Risks—and Rewards—of Big Data

Experts discuss the possibilities and challenges of big data during a panel Tuesday evening at a GW alumni reception.

GW panelists discuss issues regarding the field of Big Data.
Trustee J. Richard Knop, J.D. ’69, moderated a panel on big data Tuesday night featuring Keith Crandall, Cheri McGuire and Timothy Wood.
March 26, 2014

Big data is helping scientists battle chronic diseases, biologists tackle climate change and security agencies thwart cyber attacks.

Answers to critical medical, environmental and national security issues may lie in big data—a collection of data sets too large to be handled by regular databases or software. But how safe is the data storage? What are the privacy risks to the average citizen?

Experts in computer science, computational biology and cybersecurity discussed these key issues Tuesday evening during a GW alumni reception in Northern Virginia.

The program, “Security, Storage, and Analysis: A Panel Discussion on Big Data,” featured panelists Keith Crandall, professor of biological sciences and director of the  Computational Biology Institute; Timothy Wood, assistant professor of computer science; and Cheri McGuire, M.B.A. ’99, vice president of global government affairs and cybersecurity policy at the Symantec Corporation.

The panel was moderated by GW Board of Trustees member J. Richard Knop, J.D. ’69, founder and co-manager of FedCap Partners.

In his opening remarks, George Washington President Steven Knapp highlighted the university’s advancements in the area of big data. The university is making significant investments in its big data infrastructure, which includes the Computational Biology Institute led by Dr. Crandall and the forthcoming genomics and engineering institutes. Additionally, the GW Cybersecurity Initiative, which fosters research, programming, and policy discussion in cybersecurity, helped facilitate the creation of five GW graduate programs focused on cybersecurity.

“What we try to do is address some of the challenging problems that face the world today, and those are problems that generally cannot be solved with the resources of any single discipline,” said Dr. Knapp. “It requires bringing together the intellectual traditions, the resources and the innovative impulses of faculty and students from multiple disciplines, and a good example of that is the topic of big data and security, which brings together a number of major focuses which are currently front and center at the George Washington University.”

Mr. Knop, who Dr. Knapp called “instrumental” in establishing the GW Cybersecurity Initiative, said big data has transformed the way society processes information. Today, less than 2 percent of all stored information is non-digital, and by 2018, it is projected that 5 billion people will be connected, and another 50 million devices may be created.

“Big data analytics is having a profound effect on business, medicine, education, security, government, and in the discovery of useful and valuable insights and unlocking new forms of value,” said Mr. Knop. “But it also raises issues of balance between the beneficial uses of data and individual privacy.”

Since the discovery of NSA surveillance on U.S. citizens in 2013, the balance between security and privacy has become one of the hottest debates in big data. The panelists agreed that the processes by which big data is gathered and used need to be more clearly communicated to consumers.

Ms. McGuire said Symantec Corporation, the largest information security company in the world, processes more than 8 billion email messages and more than 1.4 billion web requests every day, as well as records thousands of security events every second. Therefore, the need for both security and privacy is a constant issue for Symantec.

Currently, U.S. consumers are protected by the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Information Practice Principles, widely accepted guidelines concerning the use of personal digital information. Ms. McGuire said these guidelines need to be modernized to address how data is collected and used today. There is also the issue of “informed consent” for consumers—do consumers really understand how their information is being used before they consent?

“Innovation always outpaces policy, so we’re in a space now where policy is trying to play catch up with the rapid exponential innovation on how we use these large data sets,” said Ms. McGuire.

Dr. Crandall said he encounters privacy issues in his own work with genomic data.

“It’s one thing for a patient to give us informed consent to sift through their DNA to look for viral elements to study schizophrenia, but it’s something else to take that data and do additional studies,” he said. “Can we do that sort of thing? Do we have an obligation as research scientists, if we identify risk factors for other diseases that we weren’t supposed to look at, to tell the patient?”

One of the benefits of working with big data in an academic setting, said Dr. Crandall, is the ability to consult with colleagues across multiple disciplines about the growing ethical and policy questions related to big data.

Dr. Crandall shared a few ways the GW Computational Biology Institute is developing cutting-edge research in the areas of biodiversity informatics, systems biology and translational medicine at GW, all of which require processing and analyzing large amounts of data. He said the university’s investment in computational biology research and big data will help develop “a robust and dynamic community” of researchers at the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.

Dr. Wood spoke about creating the GW Task Force on Big Data, which examines the work GW experts are currently doing in big data and how faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Science can support colleagues by providing their engineering expertise.

“Since we’re in D.C., this is really the area to do this,” he said. “We’ve got a huge number of consumers of big data all around us, so GW is really in a great position to capitalize on this and expand not only on what we already have but also to add new people in this area.”

The program, planned by the Division of Development and Alumni Relations, began with remarks by GW Alumni Association President Steve Frenkil, B.A. ’74, who reminded the audience of the importance of “opening doors” for fellow Colonials and staying involved with the alumni community.

Dr. Knapp said that the Washington metropolitan area is home to 77,000 of the university’s more than 250,000 alumni.

“It’s a great opportunity to have such a powerful community right at our doorstep,” he said.