Category Archives: professional

Seduced by Big Data

What do you need of you want to be Big Brother? Big Data, of course!

Data is powerful, and “big data” is very powerful. I deal with it every day in my work as a research scientist at Adobe, where I write and utilize algorithms capable of processing petabytes of data. I’ve been actively recruited by the creepily-named data mining company, Palantir (named for the all-seeing stones in Lord of the Rings). In grad school learned about powerful statistical methods for discovering latent information hiding in plain sight in ordinary data, and I learned just how easy it is to infer entire social networks from pairwise relationships, like who you call on the phone or who you email.

The Bush and Obama administrations have been culling records of billions of phone calls, emails, web searches, and more every day for years, with shocking disregard for your and my right to privacy. (Your local senators and congressmen have almost universally gone along with this invasive practice.) Billions a day for years is most definitely big data, and just as definitely is the cause for the construction of NSA’s huge new data center in Utah, just across the freeway from my workplace.

Defenders of these surveillance programs say that all of this monitoring is okay because it’s only gathering metadata. It’s true that the actual content of your phone calls is not available without obtaining a more traditional sort of warrant. But the metadata being collected—phone numbers, IP addresses, which number called which number when—is extremely powerful. Phone numbers are very easily mapped to names and addresses. It would also be trivial to discover the social networks behind the phone calls. You and your friends and family would show up together on a “map” of connections, like the one I created of American senators in an earlier post. Please forgive a little reductio ad Hitlerum, but in the wrong hands, such a tool would have made Hitler’s “final solution” a simple matter of searching the computer for Jewish names and sending the Gestapo knocking. Those helping people escape would have been exposed by their connections to non-approved groups on the social graph—another easy search!

My point is that big data allows government to build tools of immense and invasive power, and that such power will prove too great a temptation for an ambitious politician to resist. And the more complete the government’s vision, the more full its grasp of every citizen’s life and relationships, the more cataclysmic the consequences should the government itself fall into unscrupulous hands.

But maybe that’s already happened.