Big Data vs. Big Brother

Unless you’re a “data rebel or a data scientist” you’ll be forgiven for not knowing that Big Data Week begins May 5. Before you start blocking out your calendars, perhaps we should first discuss what Big Data is – and isn’t.
data-from-star-trekBig Data is NOT when fat Trekkies put on Starfleet uniforms and pretend to be Lieutenant Commander Data, the clammy mandroid of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though this will likely disappoint some neckbeards to learn, the organizers of Big Data insist their namesake is a global, crowd-sourced event focused on the “social, political, technological and commercial impacts of Big Data.”

That’s some fine circulus in probando but it still doesn’t define “big data,” at least when the term is slumming it in lowercase. Permit me an attempt: In this grand experiment known as the Information Age, we are the Guinea pigs and data are the digital droppings we pile high and deep during our online lives.

Data is big. It accretes naturally, bit by bit, like dust bunnies. Or tumors. And before you know it, it’s both a behemoth and a commodity.

Once upon a time, the traces we left of ourselves were little more than breadcrumbs, fingerprints or even mere inference on the part of others. Then, in the ’80s, we figured out how to make the copious DNA we shed admissible in the courts. Where we’d been could be confirmed on a cellular level, but that’s nothing compared to the predictive capability of Big Data – it not only knows where we’ve been but where we’re going. It can even mold our intentions. Think of how many times you’ve been sidelined by the temptress of Netflix “Because you liked…”

Yes, you’re traceable by everything you ever did online. The amount of data sloughing from you is probably more than you realize since “online” can mean anything from that cloud-based service on your desktop to every saucy text you ever thumbed into your smartphone or precisely when you paused that Game of Thrones episode via set-top box for your TV.

When the Internet of Things invades our household appliances, trust me, it will know all the above as well as the contents of your “smart-fridge.” The profiling info that can be spun from a half bottle of Annie’s Goddess Dressing could keep the spooks at the NSA busy for weeks (fact-checking the UPC code against the bank card transaction and the Whole Foods terminal at which it occurred).

From the salad dressing online, they will deduce that you’re a woman in her early 40s making peace with where she’s arrived in life – “Why did I date that guy in the ’90s?” – but knows she deserves better – “why am I dating the guy I’m dating now?” – and debating whether she’s attracted to “Conner” the checker, or if she’s just bored.

Big Data is like Big Brother except it knows what kind of porn you like.

Surveillance predictors like Orwell, and Promethean fire-starters like Snowden, all knew this was in the cards, but I’d hazard a guess that neither believe that big data is all bad. One benefit of “them” knowing who, what and where you are is, if you ever get lost or stolen, they know where to find you. Unless you’re on Malaysia Airlines.

The first thing terrorist organizations do when they kidnap you is break your iPhone. This stands to reason since it’s basically a fancy geo-location device. That it can also read your mind and sell you pop singles from the ’80s you’re dying to hear, or call forth a vampire novel it knows you’ll love, only infuriates the terrorists further. Your iPhone is a sponge for Big Data. Android – not so much. The terrorists won’t bother breaking an Android device because it’s probably already broken.

“Big data has gone from a buzzword to a business reality. Now is the moment to learn from each other to advance the art and science of harnessing data to benefit all aspects of society,” says Kenneth Cukier, a co-author of the book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.

Or, Ken, perhaps now is the moment to put on a Starfleet uniform and stomp our digital devices back into silicon, “Because you liked believing you controlled your data and not the other way around …”

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