In light of the numerous overblown 'scandals' running through the recent stories in the news, the NSA data monitoring story offers a tale that's actually worth looking at, reflecting on, and thinking about in greater detail. The story is an interesting look at both the amazing upside of our modern technology world and a reminder about how difficult it is for us to truly conceptualize the full scope of big data.
Remember this story about how Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did? It's an amazing story about what a corporate data group was able to accomplish with records that they were able to obtain from within the public domain. But, again, the key aspect of this story -- and one that's fundamental to the broader big data story -- is that the individual data points can look trivial because they don't tell the story. It's not the data points, it's what happens when you have lots of data points and you can use them to make correlations. In Target's case, it's not that you bought unscented moisturizing lotion, it's multiple factors that make that an indicator of a stage of pregnancy. One data point that statistically correlates to many, many others in a demographic model.
From a human perceptual perspective, it's really difficult for you to extract yourself from the personal significance of that transaction moment and extrapolate that as a data point in a bigger picture. We all see ourselves as individuals, not as similar patterns. It's part of what makes a big data surveillance program frightening. Instead of seeing the aggregate data and what the potential impact of that could be, we're more likely to worry about those times when we drunk-dialed our exes late and night, and what might happen if somebody found out. Or all of those times where we viewed the web sites with the lingerie models.
On some level, we all break the rules. Whether it's driving 70mph sometimes, even when the posted speed limit is 65 or downloading an episode of that epic cable television show that everyone is talking about because you're unwilling to pay the crazy annual subscription price for one show that only lasts a few weeks. Most of us understand that there's a cloudy area that separates the letter of the law from violating the spirit of the law. In most cases, we -- as members of a society -- hold to a set of values that keep us within that cloud, within our perceived sense of the spirit of the law. And so, while we might tolerate someone driving 10% faster than the posted speed limit, we tend to wish for law enforcement when we see someone operating outside of that range. And so, if some unrestrained adult tweener recklessly drives his Ferrari though your residential neighborhood, you're probably going to be outraged.
The Threshold and the Target
With all of the data available on these networks, it's hard to imagine not aggregating intelligence from it. As with the Target story, there are aspects of this process that are somewhat common in the modern Internet age (which is probably one factor in why there isn't an overwhelming amount of outrage surrounding the privacy concerns). At the same time, because these practices are so common, it's almost more surprising to hear the outrage from some government officials over these programs being revealed -- sort of like unveiling the secret that Facebook tracks your activity and builds an electronic profile of you. I would describe the outrage as laughable were it not for the mysteries that still remain cloaked -- both the Guardian and the Post have only published limited details of the program.
So, if it's helping keep you safe from the terrorists and it's commonplace, what's the concern here? Well, first and foremost, is the application of that data-gathering intelligence. While it seems surprising that Target can make good guesses about whether a woman is pregnant based on her buying habits, imagine what the government might be able to profile and demographically target. While international terrorists might avoid electronic communications, what about some of these lone wolf crazies? Imagine if you could build a profile to identify and monitor them? The upside of all of this has the potential to capture bad people and prevent bad things. At the same time, what happens if you're one of those people who thinks that the Occupy Wall Street participants are terrorists? Or those people from the Tea Party showing up at political rallies carrying guns? Maybe part of Code Pink and potentially going to heckle the President?
And think about the Target story again. Remember how Target was sending it's pregnant prospects coupons? Understanding that this is a potential use of the data, how does the government handle it? And at what stage of their 'terrorist' or 'criminal' pregnancy term do they target the person profiled? And when does behavior or electronic communication become 'thought crime' or 'pre-crime'?
Ultimately, I think that this is where we need more sunlight and a more publicly visible oversight of the process. While the overall problem is complex and probably difficult for the 'tubes' using Internet public, the potential to abuse this process is vast and powerful. After all, one of the biggest differences between the profiling that Target does and the profiling being done by the government -- if we don't like what Target does, we can opt not to shop there. We can opt to not participate, to not give them data. With the government, we don't have that option.