At a recent workshop, the Federal Trade Commission turned its attention to big data.

Representatives from the Commission recognized the positives of big data but warned about its dangers. In her remarks at the “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?” workshop, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez observed that “[b]ig data can have big consequences.”

Big data “has the capacity to save lives, improve education, enhance government services, increase marketplace efficiency, and boost economic productivity,” she told attendees. “But the same analytic power that makes it easier to predict the outbreak of a virus, identify who is likely to suffer a heart attack, or improve the delivery of social services, also has the capacity to reinforce disadvantages faced by low-income and underserved communities,” she told attendees.

Fellow Commissioner Julie Brill recalled the agency’s report in May calling for greater transparency in the data broker industry and discussed three challenges presented by big data: concerns about Fair Credit Reporting Act issues, the need for legislation of an unregulated industry, and the potential for the use of such data to exacerbate existing socioeconomic disparities.

“In an ideal world, a data broker’s products that identify consumers who traditionally have been underserved by the banking community can be used to help make these consumers aware of useful opportunities for credit and other services,” Brill said. “However, these same products could be used to make these consumers more vulnerable to high-interest payday loans and other products that might lead to further economic distress.”

Speakers at the workshop presented different opinions on how to deal with big data. Some advocated for providing consumers with notice of collection and the opportunity to opt out, while others noted that collection of some information (data collected by electric companies about rate of use, for example) is necessary for the greater good.

Complicating matters is the fact that big data is a relatively new phenomenon with the boundaries still being worked out, noted Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. For example, her group has found that based on Internet searches, they can reliably predict which search engine users will soon be admitted to the hospital.

But it would be “creepy” for the search engine to notify the user that he or she should head to the doctor, she added.

To read the text of Chairwoman Ramirez’s speech, click here.

To read the text of Commissioner Brill’s remarks, click here.

Why it matters: Big data can certainly have big consequences, as pointed out by FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. Companies should remember that in addition to the agency’s scrutiny of the industry, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has similarly called for oversight and legislation.