The Downside of Big Data

DARPA_Big_DataBig tech companies have been crowing about some of the amazing things that can be done using big data. For example, in the area of interacting with people, retailers are working hard to create personalized shopping experiences aimed at individual shoppers. Specials will pop up on cell phones as someone walks by a display that are aimed at them specifically. While many will feel this is an invasion of privacy, others are looking forward to an enhanced shopping experience. Big data promises to also personalize things like health care so that every doctor you ever see will truly understand your health history and they can guard against conflicting medicines and other things detrimental to your health.

But there are already downsides to big data. Big data is being used to put together a detailed portrait of everybody. And that leads to various degrees of profiling. The very same data that can be used to make your shopping experience better can also be used for many negative purposes. Consider some of the following examples:

  • The Chicago Police department apparently used big data to create a list of the 400 people in the community that they think are most likely to commit a murder. But then they went so far as to contact these people to tell them they were watching them. If anybody remembers the movie Minority Report, this feels like we are already reaching that time where the police convict people for crimes they are going to commit in the future.
  • Big data contains a lot of information about us – our age, race, sexual orientation, religion, weight, general health, number of kids or pets, state of our finances, etc. That kind of data can be easily used to discriminate against people in a variety of settings. We start entering a scary societal place when we use this kind of data to profile people for consideration for housing, employment, etc. There is already an industry of firms who sell this kind of profiling data to anybody for a fee. Where a prospective landlord used to check your credit report they can now find out everything about you. Let’s face it – people are bigoted or just biased and the availability of this kind of data makes it easy to redline or discriminate.
  • There is a big uptick in scams against the elderly who are being found through big data. The scams themselves are as old as the hills, but it’s the use of big data to identify the most vulnerable among us that is disturbing.
  • It was reported in 2012 that Staples displays different on-line prices to different customers based upon where they live. For example, customers who live close to a competitor might get cheaper prices than somebody who does not. But this same ability makes it easy to price differently based upon other factors and again can lead to redlining.
  • I have read where it is fairly easy to buy databases of people who have something in common – such as having diabetes, having tried to quit smoking, or nameless other traits. These lists can be used to market products specific to an ailment, but they also have been used for scams, blackmail and other nefarious purposes. It’s not hard to picture being able to take advantage of people with a gambling addiction or some other such problem.
  • The FAA’s Do Not Fly list is another result of big data and is notorious for containing names of toddlers and others who are obviously not a threat to national security. The list even ended up including several US Congressmen.

This all points to the need for some sort of legal protection of people from the misuse of big data. This is a hot topic in Europe right now but is not yet commonly debated here. Several civil rights groups have identified big data as a big threat and a new source for discrimination. But misuse of big data can go far beyond discrimination based upon race, religion or sexual orientation. Unfortunately it’s now possible to discriminate based upon a whole lot of other reasons as well.

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