Big Data and 1984?

As the data science and big data technology booms start accelerating, it’s worth noting how these technologies will change our lives – both positively and potentially negatively.

I posted previously about the ongoing discussion of privacy, but I’ve found another post on GigaOM about the same topic.  According to the article, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a case that could decide how connected the concept of big data is to constitutional expectations of privacy.

The case, United States v. Jones, is specifically about whether police needed a search warrant to place a GPS device on a suspect’s car and monitor his movements for 28 days.  Several justices, however, seized upon a very important question: How much data is too much before allowable surveillance crosses the line into an invasion of privacy?  This is a really nice post, and if you’re interested in the constitutional issues regarding privacy (for example, an appellate court has found that warrantless GPS tracking is a violation of the Fourth Amendment), I’d recommend that you take time to read the article

These two posts do highlight interesting differences in privacy and who controls our data.  We sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction to institutions that keep data on us and then use it for other purposes (whether they benefit us or not).  George Orwell’s 1984 and the Big Brother metaphors with which we’re all familiar deal with government controlling the data and what it can do with it – that’s what the US v. Jones case is really all about.

However, in the private world where we interact with companies and people more directly, it’s not really a Big Brother issue, because we give up our privacy all the time – there’s no legal requirement to give up data; we do it by choice.  We willingly give up our privacy in order to benefit from technology – little bit by little bit.  If we want a website to provide us great recommendations (say Netflix), the company is going to have to know more about us – what we like, and what we don’t like.  

It seems a bit “Big Brother”, but even people store data about us all the time – they’re called memories.  Some are good and some are bad; people remember what we enjoy and what we hate.  People who become our friends are the ones that become great matches for us – they enjoy our humor, they know what we like to discuss, and look out for us when we’re not around.

Companies will be trying to do that as well, but of course, it’s all about trust.  Just as we trust our friends with all that they know about us, we hope to trust companies with all the data they store about us.    That’s probably the biggest thing we need to wrestle with in the Age of Big Data – how to establish trust between people and the machines that will be keeping and using the data they have about us…

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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