March 17, 2013

Big Data and You

I'm not really sure how to structure this post but I wanted share some thoughts about trends we are seeing in our world that directly effect our lives now and will profoundly effect our lives in the years ahead. A week ago I heard a great story on NPR with one of the authors of a book about 'big data' -- massive sets of data from all kinds of sources that organizations sift through to derive information meaningful to their interests. Using such information, businesses try to determine consumer preferences, habits, and interests so that they can micro-target advertisements and products at the individual level. Law enforcement organizations have started to mine data from various sources to include social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter in an attempt to predict when and where crimes might be committed so that they can better apply limited policing resources to those areas where they would be most effective and prevent crimes from happening in the first place. Our nation's intelligence community routinely sifts through massive amounts of data to thwart efforts by our competitors and enemies to steal our information or to plan and execute attacks against us and our interests. Examples are nearly endless but here are a couple more stories (in addition to the NPR piece already mentioned) that hopefully illustrate what I'm talking about: Michelle Malkin on the Federal government's collaboration with schools and business to mine data from student records and Bruce Schneier writing about the evolving character of the Internet as a 'surveillance state' of sorts.

Like it or not, we have all become dependent on our ability to access information anywhere and anytime...likely irrevocably so. Want some cash from an ATM? That machine exchanges information about your account balance with your home bank. Ever use a credit card? Same thing occurs there. Place or receive a cellphone call lately...or text from your phone...or use it to buy something or find your way using its mapping feature? Your ability to do so is only possible because the phone continuously checks-in with the carriers network that locates the phones position based on timing references among the cell towers able to receive the phone's signal. Use a GPS map in your car? The system tracks your movements. Love to shop online? Use the 'web' to read the news, post to Facebook, read this blog, check sports scores, look for a recipe, comparison-shop for a get the idea. We love convenience, instant communications, as many options as possible, no-wait answers to any question. But this all comes at a price, that being our willingness to place massive amounts of information about ourselves into a place that is accessible to anyone who has an interest in knowing what we like, what we do, where we go, what we value, and even what we think. 

I think most uses of data, especially our personal data, is rather innocuous - companies wanting to make a buck by targeting people with ads that are as attractive and compelling as possible. Educators, doctors, and local police chiefs would like to use as much information as possible to teach students in as effective a way as possible, fine tune medical support so that solutions to individual health problems can be targeted to the unique characteristics of the patient, and prevent bad guys from doing bad things to good people. But people just can't help themselves. Whenever they get access to information they start coming up with new ways to use it. Their curiosity gets the better of them and they pry where they shouldn't. Those in positions of power and authority see the opportunity to do what they are convinced needs to be done. And people just can't help making mistakes. Abuses occur. Hard drives containing social security numbers or medical records are lost. Sources are shared with reporters. Titillating details from private lives are shared among gossips. Security services, under the presumption of 'to serve and protect', act preemptively in the name of 'public safety.' Before you know it, 'privacy' becomes as archaic as the rotary dial phone. 

How bad will things get? It's impossible to say, of course. But I do know that trends do not extend into the future indefinitely, unaffected by reactions to that trend. Systems operate within boundaries determined by those effected by them. When things get outside 'acceptable limits,' people respond and impose corrections. Sometimes such corrections are mild - the price point for hotdogs gets too high and people stop buying hotdogs; the price comes back down. Sometimes, however, the correction is radical. Strikes, protests in the streets, public outcry, civil disobedience. It all depends on how attuned 'the market' is to changing 'market' and 'consumer' conditions. When governments are deaf, dumb, and blind...they suffer the worst blowback. 

I hope folks become attuned to the rapidly changing nature of our world before 'radical corrections' are generated. If they do, then gentle corrections can keep data-use within acceptable boundaries. But we don't seem to do too well at voicing concerns early enough and ensuring those in positions to 'do something about it' are aware of such or held accountable to making necessary corrections. 

Something to think about. And while you're Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film released back in 2002 (based loosely on a 1956 short story, if you can believe that) that projected a near-future time when government agencies enforced the law based on assumptions of human behavior. Not a pretty picture.

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