We are entering a brave new world where, for the first time, computers are increasingly able to correlate vast amounts of information on people and make it searchable and useful. But to whom?
Google started with a mission statement very similar to this, although it reads more nobly - the company wants to make the results “universally accessible.” But other organizations aren’t so generous.
Retail stores are looking to mine customer data in order to build profiles on their shoppers, predict their habits and get a competitive advantage over their rivals. Two years ago, Target stores were able to know about a teenage girl’s pregnancy before her father did, thanks to some mathematical wizardry.
Insurance companies had been one of the first users of big data. They happily made it available to their actuaries and used the results to deny coverage and set rates for those enrolled in their programs. Most countries in the world collectively bargained for basic healthcare, but the US has only this year began mandating universal coverage for all.
And lest governments be turned to for help, they are the most dangerous suspects of all. Beyond the latest revelations about the NSA an ongoing war is quietly escalating between countries, with hackers and equipment manufacturers being used as saboteurs. Our nuclear power plants, gas pipelines and stock exchanges run on components made in other countries. The Stuxnet virus was the first, but certainly not the last, high profile case of government-sponsored sabotage.
But the biggest dangers lie at home, where governments can invoke laws to punish their own citizens with violence and incarceration. Police are increasingly being militarized and told they are soldiers fighting a war. There are now Federal laws allowing indefinite detention of American citizens without due process. Passed in the name of fighting terrorism, they beg the question of whether this new cure is better than the disease.
Still, compared to other countries — where overt dissent or gay sex are a crime punishable by execution — the US is pretty safe for the average person. When you consider the biggest potential dangers Big Data presents in the wrong hands, consider all the people living in those countries under a regime that begins to employ it.
A vast, hidden surveillance network now runs across America, powered by the repossession industry. The local legislators are considering banning the use of this data by all except, of course, government agencies and law enforcement.
The data brokers are fighting back arguing that information they collect, such as license plates and locations, is all public to begin with. This is, in fact, true — the data has always been around, it is just now becoming more searchable and cross referenceable by computers.
Where have we seen that before? Many years ago when facebook first revealed the Newsfeed. There was a huge backlash, to which CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally responded in a facebook note to all users: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” He went on to explain that all the info in the newsfeed was already public, just better accessible to us for consumption.
The inexorable march of technology proceeded unabated. The next few years produced the slogan “privacy is dead” on the social networks. So many people now post mundane details of their lives IN ORDER for others to read and to collect “likes”. This was unthinkable just 10 years ago.
Now fast-forward to last year: Graph Search comes out, to help us all find what we’re looking for using only the data available to us, and facebook doing the searching. No big splash this time. The graph search is arguable much more dangerous to privacy than ever, yet it remains technically true that it doesn’t violate any individual privacy settings.
And the inexorable march of technology continues. Keep in mind — it’s not that you’re caught on camera in a public place that’s scary. It’s that, in the future, all this stored information can be cross referenced and mined for any purpose.
This is a very good time for “Don’t Be Evil” to apply. But how and who will enforce this policy? Information is power, and our only hope, as a society, is to develop a culture where this power helps everyone. Because the days of it helping no one are gone.
I have one humble proposal, to turn this data to good, in limited cases where it is clearly needed. Requiring law enforcement officers to record and store video of their activities on duty would improve the experience for both cops and the people they are dealing with. One study showed a staggering decrease of 88% in complaints against officers. We need federal laws to enable timely and straightforward access to this video in court cases where people are facing assault charges and years in prison. There is currently a White House Petition to that effect.
As we begin to tumble down the rabbit hole, how will we steer our culture? Can we avoid becoming stuck in a Matrix of our own creation? That, dear readers, is left as an exercise to you, individually and collectively. Don’t stay asleep. Take control of your data, by helping decide how we build a culture around how it is used.