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The Ethics of Big Data

SpyVsSpyBack in 2010 Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google at the time said something really frames the issues associated with big data. He said, “One day we had a conversation where we figured we could use [use Google’s data] to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that.”

Google doesn’t say this, but when you look at all of their data-gathering efforts it is clear that their ultimate goal is to create a database in of all human knowledge. They are far away from that today, but they have already amassed the largest database in history of the human race. Google is not the only one tackling this task. For example, Facebook has mapped out the social connections between more than a billion people. Wikipedia has undertaken something much smaller but has accumulated over 4.5 million factual articles in English. The nerd’s favorite web site WolframAlpha has accumulated an amazing number of facts about the world and can display them in easy-to-understand presentations. Both Google Maps and the OpenStreetMap database are both trying to create a database of our physical world.

Google has the scariest data about each of us because they know what we are thinking about and looking for from the Google search engine. And when they pair this up with other web data that identifies each of us they know what we are doing individually, but also what we are doing collectively. It’s said that Google now has the ability to predict many things about you due to the profile they have built on you. As an example, they know who’s an insomniac and what behavior insomniacs engage in, and so they probably understand insomniacs better, at a macro level than anybody else in the world.

This is not to say that Google is analyzing their data in that specific way, but they could be. And certainly they are making their data available for sale to other large companies who do want to know that kind of thing about us. Perhaps there is not yet a company who wants to market to insomniacs (but there probably is), but there are certainly companies who want to pinpoint their marketing to the most likely people to respond.

If you don’t think that big data companies are watching you, spend fifteen minutes looking at new cars on the Internet and then watch how many times new car ads pop up in your web experience in the next week. At the marketing level big data is already manifesting itself. But marketing is only the beginning, but the one that is making Google so wealthy today.

One can only begin to imagine the possibilities for Google and others to profit from the data they are going to be gathering from the upcoming Internet of Things. That data will include a lot of detail about our personal lives, from such mundane things like when we turn lights on and off to very personal things they will gather from medical monitors. And it’s all relevant and tells them a little more about us and lets them categorize you. Because in the end they want to profile you in great detail so that they can sell your data to those who are most interested in people just like you.

The question about whether this is good or bad is going to depend upon how they use this data. If they will sell this data to anybody willing to pay the price, then it’s bad, because not everybody is going to do good things with the data. There is already talk of companies using big data to prey upon the most vulnerable among us. It’s a well-known fact that poorest among us spend the most money on mundane things like cashing checks or getting a car loan, and with big data companies can pinpoint advertising to the most vulnerable of us. It’s certainly also possible for big data to be sold to companies that will use it overtly to do us harm. For instance, it’s not hard to envision a group of private investigators using personal data about us in all sorts of unsavory ways.

And probably most scary to me is if the government or the press has access to this data. I’ve heard the old axiom that nobody’s life can survive total scrutiny and that we all have things we would like to keep private. If the government and the press have access to big data, everybody can be made to seem guilty of something. This is the premise of ‘1984’ and many other science fiction books. We are getting very close to the day when that is no longer fiction.

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