Big Data: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Remember when big data was a buzzword like ten years ago? When everyone was talking about it, but no one really knew what it meant? (Don’t tell the joke, don’t tell the joke, don’t tell the joke… well done).
Fast forward to today, we hopefully have a better understanding of what big data is. And for those who don’t, it is a lot easier to explain. It is your personal data including but not limited to your image, voice, personal information, location history, purchases, the devices you use, etc.
Now, let me share with you my view on how I see entities collect, process and use our personal data. And divide those entities into three groups: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
It is easy to say that the Good entities collect and process the data to provide you with their services. Then, they only store the information they need to continue providing you with the service and dispose of the rest safely and securely. I would argue that this is not entirely good. I find it rather lazy and uncreative. To be good is to be able to use the collected data to enhance your service or improve your customer experience. It is to offer your customers personalised offers and recommendations instead of only focusing on increasing your revenue. A man can dream, right?
If Google didn’t do ads, I think they would have been a perfect example for The Good. They continue to improve their services at an astonishing rate. Thanks to the way they process their users’ data, they can offer customised tools and services. Look at the text prediction in Gmail. It has become so useful and convenient over the last few years. My thinking switched from “No, you dumb fool, I didn’t want to say that”, to “Yes, that’s even better than what I had in mind, good bot”.
Some people will argue that ads are actually a good thing. They might help you find products and offers you are interested in but wouldn’t have found otherwise. But I am not on that boat yet. Also, can you please stop showing me the product I’ve just bought? Thanks. I would personally rather pay for Google services and not have my data used for ads.
Those are the entities that only use the collected data to serve their purpose or that would unintentionally compromise their users’ data. Typically, the main concerns are the amount and type of data collected and the fact that the data is not used in-line with what the user is set to believe.
Another controversial example I would like to include here is the authoritative entities such as police or government. They use facial recognition technologies to prevent and manage criminal and terrorist threats. The problem here is not the intention. On the contrary, I think it is a great application to technology. It’s more around the regulation, strategy and awareness, or more accurately the lack of those. The observation here is that there have been small scale independent efforts in applying such measures e.g. those implemented in London by the Met Police earlier this year.
Another example of Bad applications is simple-minded service providers, that just sell off their users’ data to data brokers. This practise is very common among some recruitment agencies.
The entities I’d call Ugly include those that have ill-intentions behind their data processing. They exploit data acquired with questionable consensus from the users. An easy example would be the Cambridge Analytica. But another one that is way more severe and that illustrates how harmful big data can be if used in malicious ways is the Chinese government.
China plans to establish a Social Credit System based on the digital footprint of its citizens. That includes facial recognition, voice recording, visited places and online activities including purchases and subscriptions. China would then define the types of activities it wants to judge its citizens against. For example, citizens who spend time online gaming, gambling or purchasing items related to hobbies the government doesn’t encourage, would receive negative points towards their citizen score. Contrarily, points would be awarded to the citizens performing activities supported by the system.
Social Credit System will then be used to approve loans, travel visas, permits or even job applications. And this practice may not only be confined to the Chinese citizens. We are all witnessing the growing concerns with TikTok, Huawei, and the amount of data they collect globally, and whether or not it is fed back to the Chinese government. Undoubtedly, we are only able to scratch the surface here, and the issue and its implications can be a lot more profound. And I am also sure that many countries/entities would like to adopt this model following the Chinese example.
This raises a couple of questions: How can we regulate data processing and its applications on a global level? And is there a way for users to protect their privacy easily without being technical experts? That’s the point where I can channel my deepest frustration, GDPR, and how useless it is among the real threat behind the misuse of big data. It’s a great illustration of how lawyers and politicians alone cannot solve technical threats.
On a slightly more positive note, I feel that nowadays we are a lot more aware that some of our personal data is collected and processed in ways we might not like. However, there is certainly a lot more to be done to regulate and enforce the use of big data on a global level.
A question to you my dear reader, what other threats of data collection do you see out there? And are you aware of any measures taken to protect us against them?