Derrick Harris at GigaOM: “Big data is like atomic energy, according to scientist Albert-László Barabási in a Monday column on Politico. It’s very beneficial when used ethically, and downright destructive when turned into a weapon. He argues scientists can help resolve the damage done by government spying by embracing the principles of nuclear nonproliferation that helped bring an end to Cold War fears and distrust.
Barabási’s analogy is rather poetic:
“Powered by the right type of Big Data, data mining is a weapon. It can be just as harmful, with long-term toxicity, as an atomic bomb. It poisons trust, straining everything from human relations to political alliances and free trade. It may target combatants, but it cannot succeed without sifting through billions of data points scraped from innocent civilians. And when it is a weapon, it should be treated like a weapon.”
I think he’s right, but I think the fight to disarm the big data bomb begins in places like Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. And it’s not just scientists; all citizens should have a role…
I write about big data and data mining for a living, and I think the underlying technologies and techniques are incredibly valuable, even if the applications aren’t always ideal. On the one hand, advances in machine learning from companies such as Google and Microsoft are fantastic. On the other hand, Facebook’s newly expanded Graph Search makes Europe’s proposed right-to-be-forgotten laws seem a lot more sensible.
But it’s all within the bounds of our user agreements and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Perhaps the reason we don’t vote with our feet by moving to web platforms that embrace privacy, even though we suspect it’s being violated, is that we really don’t know what privacy means. Instead of regulating what companies can and can’t do, perhaps lawmakers can mandate a degree of transparency that actually lets users understand how data is being used, not just what data is being collected. Great, some company knows my age, race, ZIP code and web history: What I really need to know is how it’s using that information to target, discriminate against or otherwise serve me.
An intelligent national discussion about the role of the NSA is probably in order. For all anyone knows, it could even turn out we’re willing to put up with more snooping than the goverment might expect. But until we get a handle on privacy from the companies we choose to do business with, I don’t think most Americans have the stomach for such a difficult fight.”