The Dark Side of Big Data

Jonathan Strickland


I'm a generally optimistic kind of guy. I like to think about the future with that perspective. But I also believe that optimism can't be blind -- otherwise, you're bound to run into trouble. With that in mind, it's time to think about Big Data again.

In our episode on the subject, I talked about how much information we generate on a daily basis and how difficult it would be to parse all of that. Taken by itself, that's true. We create so much information that it would take countless hours to sort through just a fraction of a percent of it. Take YouTube for example. Currently, another 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. By the time you finish watching one minute's worth of content, you're already four days behind.

But while the amount of information we create on a daily basis is staggering, our ability to sort through all that information is incredibly sophisticated. A company might not identify you by name but still know everything about your shopping preferences. A government might go further and respond to warning flags that pop up even under certain circumstances.

Take the Catalano family, for instance. Michele Catalano had been researching pressure cookers while her husband was researching backpacks. According to The Atlantic, her husband had also searched on information about pressure cooker bombs, apparently curious about how they work. He conducted that search on the computer at his former job, which had recently "released" him. Apparently, the company alerted authorities to this suspicious search.

The Catalano family was then visited by six officials with a terrorism task force, the composition of which is still a mystery (local law enforcement agencies deny participating in the visit). They then had the pleasure of answering many tough questions, including what exactly is quinoa.

According to The Atlantic, visits like these happen about 100 times a week. Michele Catalano suspects that other information about their family -- like the fact her husband goes on frequent trips to Asia -- might have played a factor in their little visit. But it's hard to say.

The point is, there's a lot of data out there. And some -- or maybe even all -- of it is up for scrutiny. And while you can argue that a proactive approach is necessary to head off people with bad intentions, the other side of the argument remains that innocent people can be targeted for no good reason. That article in The Atlantic also says that out of those 100 visits per week, 99 never really turn up anything. In other words, 99 percent of the time, someone innocent is suspected of being up to no good. It's kind of hard to be optimistic with those numbers.

This information, coupled with the still-developing story about the NSA and its program to collect unimaginable amounts of data in the off-chance that something useful turns up, really shows that we've got an incredible responsibility. It's important that we are aware of what is going on to make sure that the actions being taken are appropriate.

For example, the NSA is collecting information about phone calls and Internet traffic. According to statements from NSA officials, this doesn't count as unreasonable search and seizure because no one at the NSA actually looks at this data unless it's part of an official investigation. So sure, they've got all the information, but they don't know what's in it until they start sifting through it.

Does that argument hold water? Not everyone thinks so. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, for example. He's one of the authors of the Patriot Act, which is one of the pieces of legislation the government says legalizes their collection activity. But Sensenbrenner has said that the actions of the NSA go beyond the intent of the law. He even went so far as to call it an un-American action to collect so much information indiscriminately.

The NSA, for what it's worth, says that it's not the collection that counts. It's when the agency is actively looking through all the information that matters. That's when they are required to get court authorization (from a secret court that produces classified results).

I'd like to think that all these activities are really being performed with the world's safety and best interests at heart. But even if that's the case, just the fact that this data collection is happening means that someone could abuse it. In fact, the government's point is that NSA leaker Edward Snowden did just that -- he abused his position to pass classified information to the press. If a whistleblower (or traitor, depending upon your point of view) can do that, what's stopping some other person from doing something even more harmful to the country and its citizens?

I'll end this rant by saying that Big Data is a tool. Like any other tool, it can be used for great things (making our lives easier and more convenient while helping us discover new things that interest us) or it can be used for not so great things (like monitoring all activities in an increasingly paranoid way). I don't think we've gone all the way over to the Orwellian side, but I think it's of paramount importance that we make ourselves aware of what is going on and hold people and organizations accountable to make sure they use this tool in a responsible way, because I'd like to remain an optimist.