Big data is all the rage right now. It’s a trendy buzzword, but more than that, it’s providing incredible opportunities to the companies and organisations that are putting forth the time and energy to make it work to solve complex problems.
Big data has the potential to do a lot of good in the world. For example, India is undertaking a project to create accurate, detailed, and verifiable national records on every one of its 1.25 billion citizens, that will help the nation to improve services and systems for health, water, food, and other needs.
But that same data collection that could benefit and improve billions of lives could also be used for more nefarious purposes.
Unfortunately, big data is exactly the sort of tool that dictators and repressive governments have always wanted: the ability to know exactly what their citizens are doing, and even predict what they will do in the future.
Scary ways unscrupulous governments could use big data
Every rose has its thorns, as they say, and so for every beneficial use of big data that exists, there is the reverse, a frightening opportunity for an unscrupulous person, group, or government to use that data against us.
Take, for example, predictive policing. In February 2014, the Chicago Police Department sent uniformed officers to make “custom notification” visits to individuals whom they had identified, using a computer generated list, as likely to commit a crime in the future. The police department wasn’t arresting people; rather, it was attempting to provide things like job training and placement services, drug rehab programs, counselling, and other services in order to prevent future crimes.
But it would be simple for another organization or government to use the same algorithms, the same techniques to simply round-up the most likely suspects of future crimes — or dissidents, or anti-government activists — and arrest or detain them.