By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School
In recent years, many people—government and divorce lawyers alike—have come to see data as a treasure trove for tracking. It can get a bit beyond creepy, and into fairly intrusive and almost Stasi-like territory. And, whether we like it or not, big data is a big part of our lives.
Have you seen the movie Minority Report? If you have, you will remember its chilling portrayal of a world where three psychics called Pre-Cogs are able to predict future events. As a result, you can be arrested for the murder you’re about to commit, and not just for the crimes you’ve already committed.
They—whoever they are—know what you’re going to do before you do it. This system of prediction is combined in the movie with a rather sinister, cyborg-like law enforcement mechanism—a universal identification system using retina scans that links to a giant database that remembers everything about you. So, when you go into a store, the holographic greeter will chirp, “Welcome back, Mr. Rosenzweig. Will you be looking for another pair of shoes today?”
They, too, know everything you’ve ever done in your life; you have a permanent record. The image is, in a word, horrifying. It portrays a world where everything about you is known, and where your future actions can be predicted and anticipated with great accuracy. Fortunately, it’s fiction, of course; but nobody is sure for how much longer.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Pervasiveness of Big Data
Today, every click you take in cyberspace can be tracked, your cellphone broadcasts your geolocation, and all your purchases and phone calls are cataloged somewhere.
Taken together, this information can be analyzed to paint a picture of you—one that, increasingly, others can see. It may define who you are, and let users predict what you will do in the future. The result is a real loss of privacy. After all, the big problem with such data is the magnification of its effects by how pervasive it is.
In an increasingly networked world, personal information is widely collected and widely available. As the storehouse of personal data has grown, so have governmental and commercial efforts to use the data for their own purposes. Commercial enterprises solicit new customers with targeted ads. Governments use the data to identify and locate previously unknown terror suspects.
The Government’s Role
If the government collects data to build a picture of, let’s say, a previously undetected terrorist threat, it can also—if it’s so minded—use the same capability to build a picture of its political opponents. That navigable web of data poses threats in the free world, and perhaps even more so in authoritarian nations.
Early in the century, there was significant hype surrounding the government’s launch of a big data program known as Total Information Awareness. It was a research project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
DARPA’s working premise was that advanced data-analysis techniques could be used to search the information space of commercial and public sector data, and identify threat signatures indicative of a terrorist threat. Because this would have given the government access to vast quantities of data about individuals, it was decried as the harbinger of Big Brother, and eventually killed.
Learn more about data analytics.
Yet There Is Failure to Join the Dots
Compare that public condemnation and the government’s reflexive response with the criticism of the intelligence sector’s inability to connect the dots prior to a subsequent terrorist plot. This was the plan of the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: to detonate an explosive aboard a jumbo jetliner on an international flight bound for the United States on Christmas Day, 2009.
He was also known as the Underwear Bomber, and was subsequently sentenced in a U.S. court to life in prison. In that instance, we were told that the officials did not perform enough data analysis and that they failed to link National Security Agency intercepts to airline travel records and State Department reports.
The conundrum arises because the analytic techniques of big data are fundamentally similar to those used by traditional law enforcement agencies.
We use analytic algorithms to take a lead—a single piece of information as a starting point—and follow it to identify connections. This is what the police do on a daily basis.
But, in the big data system, computer systems operate on a much more vast set of data. And that data is much more readily subject to analysis and manipulation.
Learn more about how your data tells secrets.
The Reach of Intelligence Analysis
The differences in degree between what the police used to do and what computer analysis can do today tend to become differences in kind. To put the issue in perspective, consider a partial listing of relevant databases that might be collected by the government or by a commercial enterprise and used to build a picture of you—credit card purchases, telephone calls, criminal records, real estate purchases, travel itineraries, and so on.
All of that information is available somewhere, and it’s increasingly easy for others to access it—including those who are authorized and unauthorized to review your personal information, even though most of us probably believe that our Web surfing habits and credit card records are private.
Thus, the ability to collect and analyze vast quantities of data is a fundamental change caused by technological advances that, like King Canute’s fabled tide, cannot be stopped or slowed.
Common Questions about the Fine Line between Privacy and Big Data
Governments can use the data to identify and locate previously unknown terror suspects.
Commercial enterprises can use the data to solicit new customers with targeted ads.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, launched a big data program known as Total Information Awareness. DARPA’s working premise was that advanced data-analysis techniques could be used to search the information space of commercial and public sector data, and identify threat signatures indicative of a terrorist threat.