How would you like your GP to customise your treatment and medication according to your genome, activity level and state of health? According to one US commentator, this will be a reality in the not-too-distant future – courtesy of Big Data. This is how Big Data is quietly transforming our lives.

So what is Big Data? It’s a catch-phrase used to describe a volume of data so large and complex that it’s difficult to process using traditional database and software techniques.

Big Data is now omnipresent globally: by one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and that volume of data has quadrupled since 2007. The data explosion is so great that more data now crosses the internet every second than was stored in the entire internet 20 years ago.

In Australia, supermarket behemoths Coles and Woolworths collect a wealth of information about their customers, pulling information from their FlyBuys and Everyday Rewards loyalty programs, their online stores, and partnerships with other businesses such as Medibank and Qantas. Shoppers regularly receive personalised ads and deals based on what they put in their trolleys – virtual or real – each week. That email telling you that your favourite brand of ice-cream is now on special at Coles or Woolies? That’s Big Data at work. But using data analytics for targeted advertising is just the beginning.

US software company Esri has created an online tool which lets anyone enter a United States postcode to find out “what your zip code says about you.” The ZIP Code Lookup tool doesn’t just supply demographics. It also provides detailed lifestyle information such as household type, income, employment, and even vehicle preferences and leisure activities.

Closer to home, a recent segment on ABC’s 7.30 Report explored how supermarkets’ customer data could be utilised in the finance sector: Woolworths took their insurer’s car crash database and overlaid it with their loyalty program’s database. By tracking customers’ purchases, they were able to identify low insurance risks (actuaries have apparently determined that people who drink lots of milk and eat lots of red meat are very good car insurance risks), and then tailor insurance offers to target low risk drivers and avoid high risk ones.

Even the legal industry is tapping into Big Data. Australian law firms have traditionally been slower than UK and US firms to adopt new technologies. But it’s been reported that an increasing number of law firms are hiring experts in the field of data analytics. Skilled in mining large data stores and translating them into useful business information, these experts can provide information ranging from client profitability to the likelihood of winning particular cases.

But for all its potential applications, Big Data raises numerous areas of concern. The recent Sony hacking scandal – where more than 47,000 workers’ private information, including celebrity salaries and their home addresses, was leaked – has led organisations to question whether their data is safe. As for individuals, it’s unclear how secure our digital footprints are. And Big Data algorithms clearly have the potential to impact our privacy. As Big Data continues to get bigger, these issues will require closer attention.

Deven Perekh, the managing director of a US venture capital firm, has tipped the education and health care sectors as the ones to watch this year, with data analytics being used to personalise educational material for students and individualise health care.

Perekh predicts that in 2015, we might start to see the true potential – and real risks – of how Big Data can transform the economy and our lives. If he’s right, we’re in for an interesting – and perhaps turbulent – year ahead.

To find out more about Big Data, including Australian legal issues relating to Big Data and details of the relevant legislation, see Big Data – what lawyers need to know