Fact or fiction? Scene from the 1955 British movie of George Orwell's 1984 resonates today, though many sophisticated systems of government snooping are invisible to the ordinary citizen.
There’s an elephant in your room – and it never, never forgets.
It’s Big Data, and, says Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, co-author of a book by the same name, it is “A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think.”
From cradle to grave (and even before birth) we’re tracked, trailed, photographed, videoed, scrutinized, biometrized, analysed and….you can see where this is going.
Mayer-Shoenberger is a fan of Big D for its ability to put together information that connects patterns we could never understand from smaller bits and bytes. He also has some warnings about what can happen when staggering amounts of personal data are put together to map our lives in a virtual human cybergenome.
Q: Is Big Data just Big Brother writ larger -- an era of total surveillance?
A: There are two important elements. One is the obvious fact that we’re collecting more information than ever before and most of it is in a digital format. That creates a much more comprehensive capability of surveillance.
Q: And the other?
A: It takes the quality of ephemerality out of our communications. We used to depend on things we said or did being plausibly deniable. They would go away. We could say they never happened. Now that’s much more difficult.
Q: What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas?
A: If you look at Facebook and Twitter, the younger generation uses them as an ephemeral way of communicating. They don’t realize it doesn’t disappear like water cooler gossip. What I say will stay with me and may be used against me in the future.
Q: And the effect on behaviour?
A: What’s happening goes beyond surveillance per se. In the past, watching was done in the same time frame. Now it’s the panopticon. That was a prison in which inmates didn’t know if they were being watched, so they had to assume they were watched all the time. That created compliance without active watching.
Q: No escape?
A: There’s a “data shadow” following us that transcends time, which is new. And this may freak you out, but in the Big Data age there’s an even bigger problem, our vastly increasing reliance on probability.
It means calculating propensities based on probabilities. We’re using all that data to predict a 90 per cent likelihood that the person standing in front of us is going to commit a crime next week. So punish him now – like Minority Report. Or take him into an interview and persuade him not to do it.
Q: This isn’t science fiction. Ordinary people in Britain have been arrested because surveillance data predicted they might cause trouble during the royal wedding.
A: Right, and in the U.S. there’s “predictive policing” in a number of cities. They use Big Data analysis to determine where and what time crime spikes. But this is deeply troubling because profiling becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
Olivia Ward has covered conflict, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to Europe, South Asia and the U.S., winning national and international awards.