Big Data: A Brief Look

Screenshot of the Big Data App, by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt.
Screenshot of the Human Face of Big Data App, by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt. The app is recommended for a comprehensive understanding of the Big Data revolution.

According to The Human Face of Big Data, an app by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, “Big Data is an extraordinary knowledge revolution that’s sweeping, almost invisibly, through business, academia, government, health care, and everyday life.” The app suggests that one day Big Data may be more transformative than the Internet. It’s transforming lives—it’s being used as a tool in health care, research and government to solve many challenges that humans face.

The most mind boggling thing about this revolution is the sheer volume of data that is being produced daily around the world. According to the above-mentioned app, “the average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime.” And, “during the first day of a baby’s life, the amount of data generated by humanity is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.” And, “the world’s total data is doubling every two years.”

“Big Data” itself refers to the collection and analysis of information—an incredible amount of information. In this era, those who have access to such data (for example, big businesses) will be in a better position than those (for example, smaller businesses with fewer resources) who do not.

Why? Because as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukie argue in “Does ‘Big Data’ Mean the Demise of the Expert—And Intuition?” “data-driven decisions are poised to augment or overrule human judgment….[Increasingly], managerial decisions are made or at least confirmed by predictive modeling and Big-Data analysis.”

To further clarify the point, The Human Face of Big Data adds, “We take a piece to get a glimpse of the whole. Aristotle may have celebrated deduction, but we’ve learned that induction is the only practical way to see out big complicated world.” One way this phenomenon is being positioned, then, is as a way to take guessing out of the equation when it comes to predicting all kinds of things—from meteorological occurrences to the occurrence of disease in Third World countries.

As exciting as all of this appears to be, we should have some concerns, and not just about privacy and the ethics of data collection for research. danah boyd and Kate Crawford in “Critical Questions for Big Data” write, “much of the enthusiasm surrounding Big Data stems from the perception that it offers easy access to massive amounts of data. But who gets access?”

What if it is criminals who gain access to sensitive data?

Two fingers as criminals. They are behind bars and wearing masks over their eyes. Big data allows criminals to conduct crimes with the tap of a finger.
Big data allows criminals to potentially conduct crimes with the tap of a finger. (Photo (c) Tod Lebowitz)

In “Dark Data”, an article that appears in the app, Marc Goodman imagines a world in which criminals have become more efficient criminals and killers with the aid of Big Data: terrorists, for example, may gain control of data that tracks health information of a target and use that info to find creative ways to kill innocent people.

Goodman, a global security advisor and former police detective, is concerned: “As I look at the vast criminal opportunities enabled through emerging technologies, I grow increasingly concerned. What I’m seeing today is unlike anything that’s come before.”

As Goodman describes it, a kind of arms race is unfolding. “Both law enforcement agencies and criminals,” he writes, “are benefitting in dramatic ways from information technology afforded by the Big Data revolution.”

In this context, the scale of the potential for criminal activity is mind boggling. Goodman writes, “Never before in human history has it been possible for one person to rob 100 million people [simultaneously]—but our interconnectedness and mass data storage now make this possible.”

Although, Goodman describes an arms race between law enforcement agencies and criminals, he suggests that often the bad guys have better resources than the good guys.   (He notes, ironically, that criminals had pagers long before any of his coworkers did.)  So, what can be done? Should we be concerned? What can we do to protect ourselves?  Goodman argues that part of the answer is to be found in crowdsourcing campaigns and citizen journalism. In certain contexts, I think it is possible for crowdsourcing campaigns to get out of control—people may deserve to be publically shamed but who decides how much shaming should be inflicted? I think in this context, however, crowdsourcing campaigns may be a necessary weapon against crime. My concern here, as well as with citizen journalism, though, is that people may put themselves at risk by outing criminals.   If criminals have access to better technology and data than cops, surely they can ascertain who “ratted them out.”

In the near future, it may be a risk we have to take.

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