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Monday, October 12, 2015

Is Big Data Dangerous?

Is Big Data Dangerous?

I have been giving away personal data all my life. In 1959, when I first filled out a coupon in the back of a comic book, I started getting related offers in the mail. It is no surprise that computers make keeping these lists easier and that social networks collect the life details we share. “Big data” computer algorithms now connect the mass of breadcrumbs we leave behind, making assumptions about our habits and preferences.

For many years, marketers and advertisers have been collecting and using information about us and we have been cheerfully cooperating. Subscribe to Bride magazine and wedding service companies will know your intentions before your boyfriend does. Today, free apps on our cell phones offer us remarkable services and we eagerly install and use them. However, do not be surprised that, “If the app is free, you are the product.”


Privacy, like virginity, may be highly esteemed and valiantly protected, but it is easily surrendered in a cascade of momentary indiscretions and, in so doing, irretrievably lost. Modesty and decency dictate that our rush to do something useful with our current collective gush of personal disclosure will eventually find moderation and dignity. Until then, many people will feel over-exposed. You can imagine them sitting in corners, clasping great cloaks around themselves – eyes darting suspiciously at passing strangers.

Ironically, while we may demand our own privacy, we expect openness and transparency from governments, businesses and each other. We want to have public access to all government data, disclosure of corporate balance sheets and information about sex offenders in our neighborhoods.
The theory is that openness gives light that protects us from dark places where hidden evil breeds corruption. Political candidates were once named in smoke-filled back rooms, businesses conspired for unethical advantage, and families sequestered themselves in suburban fortresses without learning their neighbors’ names. In the last few weeks, people have begun campaigning to have police officers wear cameras to record their interactions with citizens as a defense against abuse of authority.

A new generation no longer assumes that they require private homes with hoards of private stuff. They are learning to re-engage with others in communities of sharing and collaboration. Young adults often prefer to share housing, transportation and ideas. They are discovering the camaraderie, productivity and satisfaction of working together in voluntary groups. And, they are more-willing to disclose themselves socially.

The payoff for embracing “big data” is beginning to emerge as it rapidly matures. Initially, large data sets of personal information were only imagined to be of use for business marketing or government surveillance. Now, new kinds of databases and query languages are able to digest unimaginable quantities of event records and find important and useful patterns where any human would only see random noise.

As examples, Twitter trends reveal outbreaks of infectious diseases several days faster than doctors can update reports to a central database. Big data is being used to optimize urban planning, medical diagnosis, social services, preventive maintenance, air quality, traffic control, crime reduction and automated language translation.

As sensors and computers become ubiquitous and the “Internet of everything” takes root, our systems are beginning to anticipate our needs. Google Now can analyze your usual commute home and suggest alternate routes that avoid local traffic congestion. Refrigerators know their contents and suggest buying more milk on the way home or discarding leftovers that are too old. Amazon has filed for a patent on a system that could take the initiative to ship something that they think you will want to order.


Big Data does not need to be considered a great Orwellian assault on privacy and free will. Instead, it offers the capacity to extend the age-old tools of everyday marketing to the nuts and bolts of making our lives easier and more productive. 

David Satterlee