What if…and “Big Brother and Big Data”

Many people are concerned about the rise of the “surveillance society”: the concept that governments increasingly to monitor your activities. You may be familiar with elements of the surveillance society, such as the nearly ubiquitous closed circuit television cameras in London or (as I described in an earlier post) the use of algorithms to predict crime by a U.S. police department. Typically, such surveillance is the province of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Despite concern over the surveillance society, millions of people use social networks, and more and more of our lives are played out in the public sphere, where they can be monitored. This use provides tons of useful data. For example, London police are attempting to run pictures of rioters posted on Twitter and Facebook through a facial recognition algorithm to help identify the rioters. The New York Police Department is setting up units to monitor social media in the hope that they can stop crimes such as gang violence. But simply monitoring your behavior is increasingly not enough. Big Brother and Big Data are also very interested in controlling how and when you use social networks, as detailed here.

Attempts to control communication often lead to cat-and-mouse games between user and watcher. For example, rioters in Britain used Black Berry instant messaging to coordinate because such messages were encrypted. British Intelligence then tried to crack that encryption. When the government can’t find a way to monitor your communications, they may also seek to make such communications impossible. For example, the Egyptian government closed off Egypt from the internet during their riots. Governments around the world took notice, and not just dictators. The British Prime Minister talked of banning people from social networks, while a Member of Parliament equated shutting down social networks with simply closing roads during an emergency. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Authority shut down cellular transmitters at certain stations when they feared a protest was imminent.

It’s not just Big Brother you should be concerned with, but also Big Data. Security expert Bruce Schneier describes “Big Data” as

industries that trade on our data. These include traditional credit bureaus and data brokers, but also data-collection companies like Facebook and Google. They’re collecting more and more data about everyone, often without their knowledge and explicit consent, and selling it far and wide: to both other corporate users and to government. Big data is becoming a powerful industry, resisting any calls to regulate its behavior.

Think of Big Data as the targeted, personalized marketing in the movie Minority Report.

For the most part, users are aware of and accept this bargain: they can stay in touch with friends and family, and in return their information is analyzed and sold. But what if users don’t really have a choice? As argued here, Facebook’s latest evolution is increasingly forcing users to share everything–not just everything you post on Facebook, but every song you listen to online, every book you order from Amazon, every movie you download from Netflix, and every story you read on The Washington Post’s website. Every piece of behavior is recorded and saved. Facebook is so large and powerful that just about every site will link into its network to take advantage of their huge pool of users (and huge quantity of data about those users).

It is becoming harder and harder to keep your actions private. How will this affect our future behavior? Will users ever decide a social network is not worth the cost? Will people reject social networks? Or would people not even notice, like the proverbial frog in the boiling water? Would rejection of social media make you a target of Big Brother and/or a social outcast? What if Big Data becomes more powerful than Big Brother? It would be quite the hostile takeover, I’m sure. What if Big Data merges with Big Brother?

As the surveillance society becomes more pervasive, what if your character wanted to go off the grid? Even harder, how would he stay off the grid? Or would your character try to hide in plain sight? What if he used codes on social networks, or flooded these systems with so many lies that snoopers had trouble locating the truth?

What do you think of Big Brother and Big Data? Has it affected what you say or do online? Might it eventually? Where do you think we are headed?

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