Big data, Big Brother and you

Big data is a tool -- like a hammer or a gun or a car -- that can be used for good and ill alike.

abstract head representing big data

Responding to a Nov. 20 article about big data and privacy, a reader commented:

“Big Brother is a usual product of Big Government. ObamaCare is a prime example of an expanded government trying to run all aspects of people's lives - and it is made possible by Big Data. That is not to say that Big Data is bad, but it is a tool that can be used for bad as well as good purposes. As such, it is reasonable for people to be suspicious of any big data project that is controlled by politicians. The IRS database has been recently abused for political purposes and many believe that the ObamaCare site will become a prime target for future abuses. There are several other big databases that are also being proposed that can also be used politically against the people they are supposed to be helping. Many believe that the intentions of some supporters of these proposed databases is for these databases to be used for unethical political advancement - and they have plenty of evidence to support that theory. As such, until there are strong enough limitations on the government, Big Data will be seen as a threat to many law abiding people who do not bow down to and follow the political elite.”

Frank Konkel reponds: I agree that big data represents a tool with positive and negative ramifications. The example you summarize of an Orwellian government using information to control or keep tabs on its citizens is an analogy that has become almost commonplace since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked a stash of surveillance secrets about the government.

While I can’t speak to the ramifications of – assuming it ever gets running at full capacity – in an informational sense, I do believe big data represents a major challenge for the government over the next decade. The biggest question is whether privacy law will be updated sufficiently to stay abreast of advancements in technologies and Moore’s Law. Defense and intelligence agencies already have capabilities in place to ingest huge amounts of data produced by machines, satellites, unmanned drone aircraft and a variety of other devices. Big data allows unstructured data to be correlated against social media databases, geospatial data, records databases and potentially other sources of data such as census records, giving unprecedented real-time glimpses of live action.

The NSA’s big data efforts make collection even more personal. The agency can graph trillions of data points -- phone call metadata, IP and e-mail addresses, instant messenger accounts and a variety of other data -- allowing analysts who target individuals to view a kind of chain that links his or her contacts. Whether it’s OK for the government to have those powers -- which continue to be revealed through Snowden’s leaks -- is a conversation the public and Congress are beginning to have. But remember that it isn’t just your government that is collecting information: Private-sector companies make serious cash selling the contents of your Internet searches, purchase records and the like. Privacy law has yet to seriously address those concerns, either.

Finally, I think it is prudent to mention that big data is a seriously disruptive technology, which is why we’re even having this conversation. Most disruptive technologies have pitfalls associated with them. Think about the Internet itself: The good comes with bad.

Likewise, big data comes with good and bad capabilities. Now that this technology is very much in the public spotlight, the biggest data producers in the world – human beings like you and me – have a say in how the government and industry use that data.