Big Data - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - pt. 3

26 March 2015


By Stephen A Chadwick 
Technology Editor 

I ditched my Facebook account not long after Christmas. I'll be honest, it wasn't because of any huge concerns over advertising or how my personal information was being used, but because Facebook's improved user privacy options meant stalking was becoming increasingly difficult. I'm not alone, millions of us have bailed out over the past few years. The reason Facebook worked was because we got access to photos and histories of people we might not choose to interact with in the real world. We could snoop from our laptops, we were all armchair FBI agents, hunched over LED screens, happily rummaging about in people's lives. For a few blissful years, a Facebook account was a passport to a heady world of voyeurism. In short, we could be nosy. 

All good things come to an end, gradually the masses wised-up. Their contact lists became hidden from view, access to photo albums became limited as one by one, users swapped their privacy settings from "public" to "friends". Attempts at sourcing information were increasingly thwarted, met with that automated message from hell, akin to a thousand hot needles being plunged into your eyeballs - "Do you know Lucy? To see what she shares with friends, send her a friend request". 

But while it lasted what an absurd time we all had! There were neighbours I barely knew, that I no more than nodded at whilst walking the dog, and yet I was privy to where they'd been on holiday, how their house was decorated, what brand of washing machine they owned. Videos of weddings, photos from christenings - it was all there, a mouse click away. With dedication and a little perseverance it was possible to build up a pretty solid picture of their goings-on. I felt I was practically one of the family. 

Now Imagine I'd been able to access their mobile phones as well! I get dizzy just thinking about it. Not only would I get a picture of where they had been and what they had done, but where they were and what they were doing - in real-time - the holy grail of effective neighbour surveillance. 

So whilst there were a few eyebrows raised when Facebook dropped $19 billion on acquiring messaging service Whatsapp last year, the strips of hair on the ridges above my eye sockets barely moved. I knew what Zuckerberg was up to and I saluted him. He was no longer dependent on the odd status update or mobile photo upload for his information "fix" - he was out on the road with us now, in our pockets, on the table in the pub, sat next to our beds at night. Oh you beauty! 

In all seriousness, when you take into account that Facebook pulls in more than a billion dollars per quarter from advertising revenue you can see just how much sense that acquisition made. Consider for a moment the access permissions that Whatsapp requires for installation on a mobile device: Location (network and GPS), Camera / Microphone, Contacts, In-App Purchases - that's to name just a few. 

Now throw big data analytics into the equation; aggregating and mining all the structured and unstructured data that it has, Facebook can target advertisements with exquisite accuracy. It's not just limited to Facebook of course, Google executive James Whittaker quit, citing Google's culture shift to "chasing Facebook and competing for advertising dollars" as the reason. Brian Kennish, a former Google engineer, became so concerned about the industrial harvesting of personal data that he and fellow engineer, Austin Chau, left the firm to set up disconnect.me - a service aimed at protecting the online identities and sensitive data of its users. 

Your average Facebook or Gmail user has probably never heard of the likes of Acxiom, Epsilon or Datalogix. Many are oblivious to the fact that there's a whole industry out there dedicated to the collection and retail of our information. These data brokers collect and store vast amounts of public, private and user-contributed digital information. It is mined from census records, electoral registers, healthcare authorities, social media platforms, purchase histories, bank card transactions and web browsing histories. Acxiom alone claims to hold information on 10% of the globe's population with around 1,500 pieces of info per consumer. 

These files on individuals are generally sold for the purposes of marketing and advertising, but recent testimony before the U.S. Congress showed that there's an unsavoury side to it as well. Lists traded included: rape victims, HIV sufferers, police officers by home address, elderly people with dementia and the financially vulnerable. 

There are estimated to be about 4000 data (or information) brokers in existence and it's virtually impossible to find out what information any particular broker holds, how the broker got it or what it will use it for. The US, where the majority of the world's data brokers, social media platforms and search engine providers are based, has no single data protection law comparable to the EU's Data Protection Directive. The information is therefore traded, pooled, added to, and held "indefinitely" - there's absolutely nothing you or I can do about it. What's more, data security is often an unknown quantity, several brokers have faced legal charges due to breaches. 

Big data is undoubtedly expediting the mining and analysis of information, legislation is playing 'catch up'. To that end it remains a double-edged sword. We've seen that it has the potential to bring huge benefits in terms of streamlining government, in assisting police to fight crime, in tailored healthcare and pharmaceutical trialling, immediate practical benefits such as managing traffic flows and city planning. It can assist companies with effective advertising, to identify trends and shifts, and to manage risk. But it also has the potential to be abused - it can facilitate discrimination, be it by companies, governments, law enforcement agencies or health care providers. It's a fact that emerging technologies inevitably trickle down to the criminals, the terrorists, hackers, rogue nations, despots and dictators. It's also a fact that we literally have no idea who holds information on us and what they plan to do with it, as such, it's a black hole and we're vulnerable.