Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Big Data: The development of super powers?

Daniel Cater

The new millennium has witnessed a revolution in information technology with which society is only just beginning to grapple. Exponential increases in computing power have made it feasible to gather and process information in volumes previously contemplated only in science fiction. The use of super processors and machine learning algorithms is commonly referred to as “Big Data” and its hunger is well-fed by the gargantuan information pool that is the internet.

Increasingly, experts in computing, economic, marketing, medical and security fields are experimenting with the potential of data mining and Big Data. Meanwhile, the wider community and legislators appear to be struggling to understand this continuously evolving digital capability and its policy implications.

Defining “Big Data”

Despite its popularity, the term “Big Data” does not have any firm or universal definition. Broadly, it is the collection of massive quantities of information combined with the potential to process that information to search for patterns and correlative links. Big Data values quantity over quality - it accepts non-systematic errors and irrelevance in favour of volume. In fact, pre-determined relevance has little meaning to Big Data which is primarily concerned with patterns, however random, and the correlations that can be drawn from them. It is this nebulous and undefinable reach of Big Data conclusions that invokes the imagination.       

The evolution of a Super Power?

In the new Captain America film, one of pulp comic’s most iconic heroes, clashes with the machinations of evil manipulators. The primary villain, Alexander Pierce, far from exhibiting supernatural powers, is simply an influential political figure whose tool of world domination is the very essence of Big Data conjecture. Using a computer algorithm, the ‘infinite’ resource of the internet and powerful satellite linked weapon platforms millions of potential threats to the nefarious organisation will be exterminated. In essence the Hydra organisation will exploit the demand for security in order to eliminate opposition to its own agenda of control and Big Data is a primary tool in doing so. This is the apocalyptic vision of Big Data - super processors running arcane threat prediction programs utilising the streams of personal information on the internet which arbitrarily label people as dangers for elimination. Big Data has become the super-power of the next generation villain.

Of course, Big Data is not being employed as a tool of instant world domination in the real world. However, its potential, if fully realised, will have profound impacts on our world. Big Data and the algorithms which utilise its input are still in a formative stage and its failures are as notable as its successes. Google spectacularly demonstrated Big Data potential with a Flu monitoring algorithm which accurately predicted the 2009 H1N1 epidemic; however their same disease modelling program has since disappointed. The Prism and Tempora security data mining programs have resulted in widespread protests by privacy advocates and the international community. Marketing agencies have utilised Big Data in targeting specific demographics and it has been discussed in personalised pricing schemes, where product prices are based on individual consumer capacity and demand. Clearly Big Data has arrived and is expanding in utility, capacity, scope and implication; but what does that really mean?

A change in paradigm

Privacy is identified as a fundamental right internationally (ICCPR Art 17) and has long been protected (at least up to a point) by the simple inability of anyone to utilise personal information on a massive scale due to both technological and financial limitations. Even with the vast data accessibility of the internet, the cost of both mass processing information and individually focussing data has prevented many applications. The development of Big Data processes has changed that irrevocably. From social media to online shopping, banking to communication, we constantly share most if not all of our critical and personal information. Private information given up for a specific purpose has now become an invaluable resource mined and utilised by the Big Data industry and an entire economy has developed centred around data. There is growing recognition that our privacy laws and regulations are woefully inadequate for this digital revolution.

Privacy, access, usage and data legislation must adapt to the Big Data world, otherwise the utility of Big Data will be either unrestrained or crippled by legal fetters. Big Data is transnational in nature and policy must reflect a global understanding and cooperation for a resource with global value, implications and reach. Legislation must be developed which places boundaries on what action can be taken on the basis of probabilities suggested by Big Data in order to maximise advantage but minimise the oppression of actions based on possibilities. While reforms have been proposed, and both the European Union and the United States have at least attempted to address Big Data concerns, the vast majority of law and proposed legislation is simply inadequate. If personal rights, social justice and trust in the online world are to be maintained, legislators, legal and computing experts must collaborate and address the implications of Big Data.

While Captain America and Hydra are characters from our imaginations, the implications of Big Data are not. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we going to take responsibility for our future? Perhaps a 1940’s superhero can remind us that with great power comes great responsibility.

Image by JD Hancock under Creative Commons License.