A think tank has called on the United Nations to draw up a universal 'Declaration of Data Rights' in order to ensure that enterprises, countries and citizens are able to enjoy the benefits of big data, while still balancing this with individuals' rights to privacy.

The suggestion was one of a number of recommendations made in a report by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which examined what will be needed to ensure that the developing world does not miss out on the opportunities afforded by the technology.

It noted that now is the time for action in this area, as many major decisions that will influence the future direction of big data are currently being taken. With it claiming around 90 per cent of digital data being created in the last two years – and the quantity of information doubling every two years – the area is attracting much more attention on an international level.

For instance, the report observed that the recent European Court of Justice ruling that invalidated the Safe Harbor agreement between the EU and the US will open up "fundamental questions" about how personal data is used. At the same time, issues of data sharing and privacy are part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and US, and the 24-nation Trade in Services Agreements (TISA) discussions.

"The outcome of these negotiations will shape big data impacts for years to come," the report said. It also noted that the fact deals such as TTIP and TISA are being negotiated in secret makes it very difficult for citizens to engage, as does the fact that the long-term implications of big data are still not well understood.

IDS' study observed there are four key areas where big data will have an impact on developing nations as they increasingly embrace the technology. These are its economic impact, its effect on human development through advancing health or education, its implications for human rights and how it can reduce the strain on environmental resources.

Dr Stephen Spratt, research fellow at the IDS, noted that developing countries face particular challenges when it comes to the implementation of big data, as in many cases, protections for civil liberties have not been encouraging.

"A worst case scenario is one where a government can see citizen data but information on government activities remains closed, and where corporations offering internet access to people in developing countries do so on the condition of targeted advertising and right to use data in exchange," he said.

Dr Spratt stated that "much more needs to be done" to minimise the risks facing these nations and ensure that the benefits of big data are shared equally, rather than just among large corporations, the richest individuals and developed countries.

The report called for the UN to establish a panel of social science, ethics, legal and technical experts to draft new guidelines that will "enshrine citizens' rights to access data on their government's activities in the process, and a citizen's right to see and control the information held about them by governments and corporations." 

Other recommendations in the report included improving funding for public research into the implications of the increasing use of automated decision-making and learning algorithms, and requiring large enterprises based in developed countries to employ the same approach to data privacy in all countries they operate.