Did you ever wonder about the use of big data technology in our society? Think about all that big data really is:
BIG DATA … It’s the collection of bits and bytes that are stored in the cloud and on our computers, tablets, and smartphones.
BIG DATA … Retailers, advertisers, doctors, scientists, governments, service providers, and employers use it to analyze who we “are” and to glean actionable (useful) information, which they can use to help us… or maybe to hurt us.
BIG DATA … Pretty soon, the word “big” won’t be big enough. With the advent of “The Internet of Things” the sources of data are spreading well beyond our computing devices – new information is being fed into the cloud from your toaster, your fridge, your TV, your wrist watch, your gaming platforms, and even your toilet! (Are you kidding me?)
Perhaps you’re performing a mental backpedal right now and thinking, “I don’t go around broadcasting my personal info, so what could they really find out about me?”
Well, let me tell you … big data comes from many sources and exists in many formats. Your emails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, browser history, Google search history, and online purchases all say something about you. But even if you don’t shop online or get into social media, you’re still exposed every day to data-collection technologies like public traffic cameras, motion sensors, and facial recognition systems that track who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing (such technology is more popular than you know). And have you thought about your bank, your investment portfolio, your healthcare and medical history, and your educational institutions and all the data those sources have about you?
You get the point. Unless you’re a hermit living in the mountains your whole life, there’s already tons of data out there about you and there’s nothing you can do to stop or control it. Big data comes from just about everywhere, and in the right (or wrong) hands can be manipulated into some very scary knowledge about your life, your patterns, and your habits.
After taking a course at MIT on “Tackling the Challenges of Big Data,” I was shocked into reality on this, and I started asking some big questions:
- With so much data moving at such a high velocity, how can systems possibly interpret that information in a meaningful way?
- How can systems glean useful information, yet still ensure our privacy?
- How can systems put differing sources of information together to gain an “understanding” of our behavior and anticipate things we might want or need without making ASSumptions?
- How can service providers or government agencies interpret this information to identify threats, hazards, or dangerous trends without intruding on the privacy so critical to our democracy and our freedom?
The fact is, they, really can’t with any degree of certainty.
The methods and systems used to collect, curate, analyze and use of big data technology in today’s society are ultimately controlled by humans, and that means they are subject to imperfections, biased interpretations, and abuse.
There is a science around data-curating and many professionals have purely altruistic motivations … but it’s not the scientists I’m afraid of. It’s memories of George Orwell’s terrifying novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – and how Big Brother knew everything about you.
We are living in the digital equivalent of the Wild Wild West and big data is a wide-open frontier full of opportunity but fraught with unknown hazards and potentially deadly pitfalls. We are on the cutting edge of a new age of data-driven artificial intelligence, and the science of curating and normalizing disparate sources of data into useful intelligence is in its infancy. It is, in fact, an imperfect science, and as such is susceptible to all kinds of erroneous assumptions and false conclusions that could (and probably will) work against each of us at some point.
Furthermore, the sheer size and complexity of these data sets is mind-boggling. The data is spread all over the globe in literally millions of caches and storage devices. Within these “gold-mines” of information lies enough data for a foe, criminal, or foreign government to completely assimilate your past, present, and even your future … (I am Locutus of Borg, resistance is futile!)
It’s frightening when you dig into the depth and breadth of data that exists about you personally and which is universally available to anyone willing to pay for it, or smart (dumb?) enough to steal it. Things like where you live, your phone numbers, your passwords, your favorite websites, who your children are, how old they are, what they like, what they wear, when you sleep, what you buy, where you shop, when you shop, why you shop, what things you buy together (correlations), who you talk to, what you talk about, what are your politics, what are your hobbies, what are your medical problems … the list goes on and on.
So while I’d love to tell you I have all the answers, the fact is, I don’t. The best we can do is use some common sense when it comes to sharing or posting stuff that is personally identifiable information (or PII, as it’s commonly called) and teach our family the importance of discretion. Check out www.staysafeonline.com for some great info. For those of us who are IT professionals, we have the added responsibility to make every effort to lock this data down and keep it hidden away from prying eyes.
And if that doesn’t work, we can always close our eyes, cross our fingers, and hope that “Big Brother” leaves our “privacy” intact if for no other reason than the impossibility of fishing in the vast sea of data: autonomy and security through information overload!
This article was originally posted on Forbes.
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