Troubled about big data

Sometimes issues can seem too abstract or remote to deal with. I guess big data, and the challenges it raises, is like this for many. I find it helps to relate the pros and cons to things I already experience.

I can see the benefits in the patterns that will emerge from increased amounts of data. I use a fitbit and various apps to track my activities and their consequences. This make it easier to make decisions about and changes in my lifestyle. I also like the visible connections between people that social platforms give me. These have enabled me to reconnect with friends or to meet interesting people I would otherwise never have encountered. I can imagine both of these benefits applied on a national or global scale to positive effect.

But I can also see the risks of people I don’t know making decisions on my behalf or putting two and two together randomly and making decisions about me. Decisions that affect my life but over which I have no control.

The government’s attempt to filter the Internet on our behalf have ended up, as predicted, like having a brainless IT manager filter your corporate Internet access and making arbitrary decisions as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Consider the frustration you currently feel dealing with utility company or telephone company call centres where their data is wrong and you are dealing with people who have no ability or inclination to do anything about it but whose decisions affect your ability to live your life.

Now apply these familiar experiences to the government giving corporations access to your medical records, or the NSA/GCHQ deciding to put you on a watch list because you once wrote in your book that someone dubbed you an organisational anarchist. You probably don’t know anything has happened, and don’t even notice when things start to be unavailable to you or services react differently when you engage with them. Even if you do notice something you face call centre hell getting anything done about it.

For all the potential benefits, blindly trusting our lives to an increasingly autonomous database driven nightmare carries with it significant risk.

HT Antony Mayfield for the medical data link

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