One hears with some frequency today that “data is the new oil.” Recently, Virginia Rometty, IBM’s Chief Executive Officer, updated the phrase, explaining that Big Data is the new oil. Most people who have used the analogy do so in order to convey Big Data’s tremendous value. Data is an essential resource that powers the information economy much like oil has fueled the industrial economy. Big Data promises a plethora of new uses—the identification and prevention of the pandemics, the emergence of new businesses and business sectors, the improvement of health care quality and efficiency, and enhanced protection of the environment, to name a but a few—just as oil has generated useful plastics, petro-chemicals, lubricants, and gasoline. Big Data “is becoming a significant corporate asset, a vital economic input, and the foundation of the new business models. It is the oil of the information economy. This Article looks at the analogy in a different way, one not yet developed in the scholarly literature. It examines the underside of the ‘Big Data is the new oil’ comparison. Oil certainly has many productive uses, but it also leads to oil pollution. Big Data is similar. It produces tremendous benefits, but simultaneously generates significant privacy injuries. As the data sets get larger, the threat grows as well. Big Data is like a massive oil tanker navigating the shoals of hackers, criminals, and human error. It can make us smarter and wealthier and our lives better. However, like oil, it can also harm us. Environmental law has developed ways to reduce oil pollution. This Article draws on this environmental law success story to identify ways that law and policy can protect privacy in the era of Big Data.

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