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Big Data is so large, it’s raising privacy & ethical issues

Maybe it was inevitable in hindsight, but the accumulation and monetization of human data is now an industry — a commodity — of its own. As the internet’s precursor technologies were being refined, the directive against using it for profit was gradually lifted. What we have now is essentially a global economy fueled by the internet. But fueled how?

Beyond just connecting one person with another, or connecting a business with a prospective customer, the internet also offers tools for people who want those connections to happen more often and with better results. Whether it’s targeted advertisements based on product searches or a gentle nudge from a not-quite-serious news source, much of the internet exists to either learn about each of us on a personal level, sway our decisions, part us from our money, and sometimes all three.

A considerable amount of the data science going on behind closed doors at tech companies like Facebook and Google is proprietary and arguably should remain so. But the vast influence of big data and the business opportunities it’s unlocked for industry is quickly bleeding into the public’s domain and demanding hard answers to questions about privacy and even free speech. Recent Congressional hearings confirm the urgency, even if they haven’t quite landed on satisfying answers yet.

Big data got so big because there’s a demand for consumer and voter information. In fact, it could be a $203 billion industry by 2020. Suffice it to say, there’s a science to parsing useful insights from user profiles on websites and web searches sorted by IP address. Most of the interactions we have on the internet are useful for the right kind of analyst. The question now is how we deal with the privacy and ethics fallout from this brand-new industry.

Facebook, Google and the ‘face’ of Big Data

You probably heard by now, or even watched yourself, some of what happened when the American Congress invited Mark Zuckerberg to testify about why and how Facebook gave a known social engineering firm unauthorized access to the personal details of Facebook users.

Never mind that Facebook was from the beginning envisioned as a profit-generating machine — and that Zuckerberg believed that early Facebook users were “[expletives] for trusting him” — the fact remains that Facebook was easily hijacked in efforts to sway public sentiment at times of intense political upheaval. This was merely the first time Congress members’ Facebook profiles were at risk, so it’s the event they chose to publicly react to. The truth is, Cambridge Analytica already had a long history of interfering in elections on multiple continents before Brexit or the 2016 American presidential election rolled around.

What this means is that big data isn’t just a business or even a commodity — it can also be a weapon. We can also see this in how unseemly alliances can weaponize even access to information. There are inevitable cultural and ethical issues that arise when big data companies essentially become the negotiators for how information is exchanged between countries and continents.

Google is, for millions of people, the gateway to the internet. This is why Google employees reacted in number and intensity to reports that Google intends to roll out a project called “Dragonfly” to achieve search engine market share in China. Dragonfly is a 2017 project by Google to create region-specific versions of its apps and services that obey free speech restrictions and actively enforce redactions when users perform internet searches. Google would, in other words, become complicit in efforts by a famously restrictive regime to censor words and phrases related to protest and dissent.

It’s not a secret why Google wants search engine market share in China: selling ads and data from web searches is an extremely profitable business, and one that Google essentially helped invent. More relevant to our discussion today is the country’s apparent concessions made in the name of that market share. Google has made themselves more transparent in recent years when it comes to how they use and deploy user data, and users have more tools for fine-tuning their data use than ever. But the small-scale ethical concern of one company shaping an individual user’s experience on the internet — to sell summer clothing, say — pales in comparison to the problem of giving such a company stewardship over free speech itself in developing countries.

What public interest groups and governments are doing about it

As mentioned, Google has a suite of tools available to help users achieve a more pleasing balance of privacy-mindedness and convenience. Even more recently, Apple provided users with the ability to download and better understand their own user profiles as captured by the company’s devices and services. Apple has, until recently, made decisively more money from hardware than from services, but it’s still good to know users have some transparency now on ad-tracking and other uses of personal data, even if it’s not as large a revenue stream.

Both companies’ efforts are timely, and so was Zuckerberg’s summons to Washington, D.C., considering the European Union voted in favor of making its General Data Protection Regulation — or “GDPR” — legal and enforceable. GDPR provides guidelines for technology and communication companies in 28 member nations when it comes to personal user data. Under the threat of heavy fines, technology and data companies must now provide transparency to users about how their data is gathered and used.

It’s been hailed as a major win for privacy on the internet and an important check on possible overreach by the technology companies, Google included, that millions of people have come to rely on. Some of the rules actually mandate the appointment of a Data Protection Officer for some types of companies that engage in public works or otherwise handle sensitive data. Making the ethical handling of personal data mandatory comes with certain expectations and even expenses, but it’s creating new business opportunities and new professions, too.

And it’s likely to remain both a tool for profit and, potentially, a political weapon. Facebook users are a stubborn bunch, and the apparent exoduses haven’t dented the company’s profits. Plus, public outrage hasn’t derailed the company’s plans to roll out a series of smart home devices. But their news ticker is on notice for spreading fake news and their programmers are on notice for leaving the back doors open for outside parties to scoop up data on millions of users at a time.

The public is more aware now, too, of the pitfalls of big data and the companies that have staked their profit margins on its becoming a vital part of human industry. It’s not going to change all of our habits overnight, but it’s going to help us engage with “Industry 4.0” with eyes wide open.

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Megan Ray Nichols

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