Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched?
This is not the work of CCTV, nor is it a delusional sense of reality a la Truman Show.
This is the age of Big Data, and big data knows you.
What exactly is big data? In layman’s terms, it is the sets of data so large that they have to be processed computationally in order to be understood in any meaningful way. This is all the data produced by everyone with a digital footprint, a literal ocean of unprocessed information made up of our collective likes, searches, memories, and secrets. Whether it be a photo of you in your favourite café or a walk to work with your phone counting your every step, we are all doing our part to swell this great sea. Now you may be thinking that these activities are all harmless and so what if someone wants to know about your binge watch schedule or your trip to Thailand. Well It’s not what you’re doing so much as what can be done with it. In 2011 the global ‘Big Data’ market was valued at 7.6 billion dollars. In 2017 the number grew to 35 billion dollars and is forecasted to grow to 103 billion dollars by 2027. The age of Big Data isn’t stopping any time soon, in fact it seems as if its only just begun.
There is a two-way feedback loop happening here though when it comes to data. Your behavior is recorded and presented to a government or a company who in turn change their approach to presenting themselves according to how they now know you. That means there is a constantly evolving system of understanding built around your actions intersecting with their interests. Yet one must wonder how long it will be until the two will be synonymous with each other. Professor Rust, founder of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge, warns, “The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.”
Let’s take a real-world example with an impact that only few know the scope of. In the UK it’s the dreaded B word, in the US it is the big T causing an endless headache. But what do the political phenomena of Trump and Brexit have in common? Well populism of course, but that populism is rooted in a far more sinister knowledge. Everything became clear with a scandal that few understood the importance of even though it changed the heart of modern politics. Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that combined data mining and analysis with electoral strategy became embroiled in a scandal back in 2018. It was accused of harvesting the personal data of an estimated 87 million people’s Facebook profiles without consent, almost the entire voting population of the US, along with a significant portion of the UK voter base as well. This was all accomplished by the permissions granted when taking one of those trivial personality quizzes that we all have succumbed to at some point. After divulging your fears, hopes, and personality traits for free, they had access to you and your friend’s information. This gave them the data necessary to create complex psychological profiles for individual voters and tailor political messaging around that. If you saw an ad that made you feel anxious about immigrants at the borders or that discouraged you from voting, you were most likely a target of that campaign. The architects of these campaigns were those who had both vested interest and the knowledge of how to use the data. In the US it was Robert Mercer, billionaire Republican donor and computer investment banker, who saw major potential in Cambridge Analytica’s psychometric voter targeting and invested heavily into the campaign of Donald Trump with it. In the UK it was Nigel Farage, longtime friend of the Mercer family, and Andrew Wigmore, director of communications for Leave.EU, as reported by national news media such as the Guardian.
Some people were awakened by this scandal, feeling uncomfortable that their personal data was used in such a subversive way. Yet perhaps the most concerning part was that this data was taken consensually. Buried in the often glossed over terms and conditions agreement are the rights to some of the most intimate knowledge of yourself. That’s not the only way data is harvested though, with most of it done inconspicuously as part of what is being called the Internet of Things. This refers to the extension of internet connectivity into everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. That also means the biggest voluntary producers of data are us with all of our ‘smart’ technology. The smartphone is connected to the smartwatch is connected to the smartcar is connected to the smartblender and so on. Most of this connectivity and data production is brought about with the promise of personal convenience, which is true. What it is also used for is to be bought, sold and processed in order to reveal patterns in our behavior. That creepy feeling you get when something you just talked about appears on your newsfeed or in an ad isn’t just paranoia. Tech companies use computer algorithms to make use of personal data in a process called ‘predictive analytics’ which can reveal everything from consumer behavior, to future markets, to which children are statistically more likely to be in danger at home. The clairvoyant power of these algorithms has been able to do things such as predict pregnancy before the mother is even aware just by analyzing their shopping behavior, as claimed by an article in Forbes in 2012.
The bottom line is that this technology, the gathering and processing of large volumes of social and behavioral data, has changed finance, politics, health and generally the world. The 21st Century looks to be the undisputed age of technology. Whoever will master that technology will be in control of far more knowledge than ever thought possible. Whether that technology works to benefit us all or a select few will be dependent upon the agenda of those at the helm of this great power.