Big Data or Big Brother?

And it’s not just Baker who has come to this conclusion. Many others including academics Katina Michael and Keith Miller contend Big Data will ‘change how we live in both small and large ways’. In particular, Michael and Miller have documented how Big Data has altered peoples’ modes of consumption. Businesses are using this information to ‘expose people’s hidden behavioural patterns’ and effectively suggest products for purchase. No doubt you’ve seen it before, ‘People who bought this product also bought product X’. I bet you’d be lying if you said you had never clicked through. They also observe that Big Data analysis is leading to an ‘anticipatory approach’ to fighting crime. But more on that later.

Although data analysis has been around since humans started keeping records, today’s digital era is the first time so much, and so many different types of data have been collected, stored and effectively understood. As American academic Michael Ackerman says ‘in today’s world everything is digital, and therefore everything can be considered as data’. When you can track patterns of digital behaviour, you can begin to predict what people will do, and target individuals for marketing, votes and even government surveillance. This is what makes all our online activities so extremely valuable

SO I’M TELLING you Big Data can be used to understand us as people who vote, buy, love and even commit crimes, but how? Understanding us as a consumer is generally pretty straightforward, as demonstrated by Miller and Michael above. Similarly, during an election campaign American politicians no longer want to use all their marketing resources on broadcasting TV ads. They still do a bit of this, but most of their marketing money now targets undecided voters, in election deciding states like Ohio. Baker sounded a little upset by this on the phone because during the 2012 US election ‘no-one gave a damn’ about his vote. Obama and Romney ignored him completely because Baker lives in a safe Democratic seat. Obama already had his vote, and Romney knew it wouldn’t make a difference. If he had lived in Ohio on the other hand, his vote would be worth money because it might decide the election.

The fact big companies and politicians are spying on us is hardly surprising; you could never really trust those types anyway. But what about your partner? How are they involved with this Big Data thing? I put this to Baker and he told me about a little experiment he undertook with his wife. Sorry to disappoint, but its rated PG.

Many online dating services claim to have the ‘algorithms of love’. Fill out a questionnaire and ta-da! They will show you the love of your life, your future husband or wife until death (or, increasingly, divorce) do you part. So Baker and his wife gave it a shot. They both signed up to one of these sites, filled out the survey and waited anxiously to see if they made the right decision. Sadly, they had not. The algorithm told them so. But Baker was unconvinced; ‘It matched us with all kinds of people that both of us thought, at least I hope my wife thought, were bad matches for us’. So Baker says doesn’t have the ‘algorithm of love’ but… (yes, there is a but) when he gave the site a little bit more information Steve and his wife were reunited. Perhaps these sites aren’t total scams after all.

WHILE USING Big Data to sell products and score dates may seem reasonably harmless, employing Big Data for security purposes raises some big questions. Particularly, whether Big Data surveillance is a good or bad thing for us personally, and our society as a whole. Here we enter the ethical minefield of public good vs. personal privacy.

The utopian vision, which the US government is trying so hard to spin, suggests Big Data can be used to create a safer society. In the wake of the PRISM scandal the NSA revealed its internet surveillance program had stopped fifty potential terrorist attacks. If Big Data could have prevented the Woolwich attack in Britain as well, or stopped a paedophile from interfering with children, shouldn’t law enforcement use it? These are really emotive subjects and my gut instinct is to say yes, of course terrorists should be stopped and paedophiles should be prevented! Who wouldn’t say that? Well, my good friend Stephen Baker (one extended interview is enough to be classified as friends right?).

If you’re confused like I was, Baker offered a pretty good explanation: using Big Data to profile criminals is ‘a way in which innocent people can get grouped into potentially guilty. And when you have a society that is concerned about this, perhaps the civil liberties of people might not be respected as they should be—the innocent aren’t innocent until proven guilty.’ Think of the Pre-Crime division, imagined by Phillip K. Dick in ‘Minority Report’. Dick describes a city where murder has been eliminated because people are arrested before they physically commit the crime. Except instead of sci-fi psychics stopping would-be murderers, we have a quiet little man trawling through your data. If that’s sounding a bit far-fetched, picture this; someone comes up with the profile of a potential paedophile based on interviews and studies of how convicted paedophiles act online. With these statistics, say authorities test every school teacher in the country and they found out that a music teacher at your local primary school had a forty-eight per cent chance of being a paedophile. You’ve got this information, but what do you do with the person? Should you take action and ban him from teaching, by extension accusing him of being guilty of a terrible crime he is yet to commit? Or do you do nothing, because this man is currently innocent? And if you do nothing, should you be held responsible if something does happen? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, it seems to me.

It’s not just about abandoning a cornerstone of our democratic justice system. The knowledge of being watched in itself curtails personal freedoms. French academic Paul-Michel Foucault first wrote about the ‘panopticon’ in his 1975 book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’. The traditional panopticon is a prison in which the inmates are watched by guards from above. Although the prisoners know they are being watched, they do not know when. In this way their behaviour is controlled by the threat of being observed. In the panopticon the potential of being watched is at the root of power and domination by a minority against the majority. While Orwell’s vision is yet to be fully realised, the power of the observing few is already beginning to encroach on our activities. For example, Michael and Miller are concerned about a kind of digital panopticon coming into play in the workplace. Corporations are increasingly watching their employees’ online activities at work in an effort to increase productivity. However, according to Michael and Miller this surveillance comes at a cost: ‘tracking employees’ every move and continuously measuring their performance against industry benchmarks introduces a level of oversight that can quash the human spirit’. Although you may not feel the oppressive force of the digital panopticon on your soul yet, I am sure you have thought twice before posting those photos from New Years’ or slagging your employer off social media. Once at a Woolworths’ induction the human resources manager told us how she enjoyed firing someone after they made some less than favourable remarks about the company online. For the few months I worked for Woolies I didn’t even put the job on Facebook for fear the HR lady would take umbrage at something I said on social media and fire me.

AFTER ALL THIS you now know a bit about Big Data. Intelligent little men are using the mind-boggling amount of data we make to help understand our lives. Big Data is impacting how businesses, governments, and perhaps even how individuals operate. It impacts consumption, surveillance, security and maybe even love. Today we are all constantly being watched by little men with big computers, but should we be worried? If we are concerned and consequentially begin to monitor and limit our digital activities to avoid being incriminated then we may as well be in a virtual panopticon of sorts. In today’s world it’s hard not to be swept up in the data-producing deluge. Just as 100 years ago you had to give up some privacy to be part of a community, even if it was just meeting in a public square, today we need to give up personal privacy to join online communities, on social media, on email and even just using search engines.

I don’t think I’ve know anyone who’s said they won’t use the internet because they want to maintain their privacy, and I don’t really expect them too. Despite his extensive research on the topic Baker still uses Google, Facebook and Microsoft. In a world increasingly driven by capitalism, he’s decided to exchange his personal data for the services these companies offer. I guess the most important question now is are you?

If you not concerned about Big Data, that’s fine. But next time you’re online, or you use a credit card, or even the next time your smartphone is in your pocket I want you to think of a little man. He wears glasses, is extremely intelligent and always taking notes, notes on you and the patterns of your life. So long as you remember he is there, that Big Data is recording your every digital move, then I guess it’s okay. The message is not so much beware as be aware, Big Data is watching. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Original Source: Matilda Marrozi, 2013, “Big Data or Big Brother?”, Nourish #94,