Alistair Croll’s post about Big Data and civil rights is important, but I don’t think he has it exactly right. The article does a good job of explaining how Big Data differs from data warehousing as it was traditionally done. It also illustrates how Big Data can be misused as a vector of discrimination, violating people’s civil rights.

While Big Data may enable people to discriminate in innovative new ways, or to make better guesses about who to discriminate against. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a new civil rights challenge. Discrimination against protected groups is already illegal, at least in the United States. In fact, at least when it comes to employment law and housing, the doctrine of disparate impact also applies. It holds that you can be liable for discrimination even if your practices are not intentionally discriminatory, if those practices have a disproportionately adverse effect on members of a protected group.

It is not the use of Big Data to implement discriminatory practices but rather the discrimination itself that is the fundamental problem. The challenge in fighting discrimination is what it always was, proving the discrimination in the first place. In the era of Big Data, the data and algorithms provide a more concrete paper trail than the unspoken, unrecorded discrimination that still occurs every day.