The Big Data Debate

21 January by Cognitive Group

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​LOOKING FORWARDS: THE BIG DATA DEBATE AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOUR FREEDOM

Move fast and break things
“Move fast and break things.” A now infamous quote from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, which has evaporated to become a dark cloud hovering above the whole of the big tech industry today. The principle being that if you’re not breaking things, you’re not moving fast enough. But what about when “big tech” moves so fast, they break basic ethical and moral principle? Modern media has been relentless in spreading awareness about the knowledge and power that the top tech firms possess in holding thousands of datapoints for each individual, alongside their ability to manipulate these into influencing behaviour and undermining our freedom and sense of ‘self’.

Sounds severe doesn’t it? Well I would actually go further and make a more dramatic statement to accompany this view: the topic of big tech and data protection is the most important humanitarian issue of today, and the near future.

So, what is the issue all about?
Some of the big companies in question here have over 5,000 datapoints per person, which is frankly just staggering. So, you best believe that companies now know us better than we do ourselves. Think about it, if I gave you a piece of paper, could you write down 5,000 things about yourself? Even more frightening however, is the level of intimacy of the data being extracted. Think about smart watches that monitor your body’s physical functions, smart tech that monitors your sleep patterns, and online banking systems that capture all your purchase history.

Whilst our everyday lives are ‘greatly assisted’ by being told/recommended how much exercise we need to do per day to enhance our health, how our quality of sleep is affecting us daily and how to manage our spending’s, have you ever thought of what happens to this data beyond this? Well, it is sold and/or stored by companies that can literally build a full profile of who we are, who then influence us to behave in certain ways without us even knowing it – we may think we have complete autonomy over decisions, but the loss of our internal data is already dictating how we behave.

Regaining Ones-Self
As our use of smart devices and platforms continues to increase at the same time as they mature in their sophistication and reach, we are heading towards a world without self-expression or judgement, which you could argue isn’t even human at all.
Think of each datapoint as a single, tangible cell of our self, which have all been transposing to the ownership of big tech companies, reducing our own control over who we are as a result. This is driving us towards a critical point. We need to regain these building blocks to protect our freedom, self-judgement and self-expression. You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds over the top, but unfortunately, this really is the point we find ourselves at.

Leading from the Front
But it is important to not paint all of these tech firms with the same brush. It has been greatly encouraging to see senior officials at Microsoft come out to voice the need for greater regulation on the big tech firms, including themselves, citing the threat to freedom as the key reason (see link below article). These actions are a great step forwards in influencing positive change here. Microsoft’s stance brings attention and ignites conversation surrounding this issue, which is one that is gaining in momentum and size, to break more things than big tech ever has. And Microsoft are leading by example as well. Their System Centre Data Protection Manager keeps user data safe, recoverable and most importantly, accessible, creating a very necessary degree of transparency for Microsoft users. Shouldn’t all big tech, data harvesting companies employ a similar software? Definitely.

Despite this positive action, Microsoft are facing criticism. Those attempting to undermine Microsoft are accusing them of only promoting this stance as they will be less directly affected than other firms, allowing them to stay on top. Whether this is true or not, these arguments expose just how great the problem really is. Microsoft have bravely made themselves vulnerable by putting the basic humanitarian issue here above all us. So, the criticism that has been received for doing so, reflects a lack of understanding and appreciation for the depth of the problem by some people. This argument emerges from the perspective of prioritising business performance over basic rights and principles. Put simply, data protection best practices should be placed so high on the agenda to even be challenged by arguments prioritising business objectives.

So, what will reform actually look like?
It goes without saying that it is not possible to provide highly accurate predictions as to what reform will look like as it is entirely dependent on the scale of regulation that may be introduced. But it must still be discussed. Firstly, let’s not forget that the collection and use of our data has brought real benefit and convenience to our lives - think; personalised shopping recommendations and the overall more specific consumer experiences across different platforms that we have come to love. So, stricter regulation will limit big businesses in their ability to tailor our digital environments, and we may have to revert back to making our minds up for ourselves.

But what is it that makes this worth it? We retain control over our personal data which helps to combat the manipulating and controlling powers that these firms possess. This new control and transparency will still allow us the ability to offer up certain datapoints to firms, but by increasing our understanding, we ensure that it is being used in a manner that suits us. It is important that we get a head start here by beginning to understand our data and how it is sold and used before any reform happens.

Next Steps:
Whilst it is easy to get carried away with a narrative of this issue that is as much downward spiralling as it is dystopian, it is vital to stay focused on the relevant steps here. Microsoft’s comments are a fantastic way of steering the ship towards the correct course. Their voice carries real authority, especially within the context of this issue, of which they themselves are central. And the other big tech firms should come out in support too. Even ignoring the humanitarian approach to the issue and looking at it through the business focused eyes that these firms use, it is becoming a major PR nightmare. Public opinions are rapidly deteriorating and swelling with outrage as more popular media sources lift the lid on this deeply personal issue. So, at this moment in time it is important to praise Microsoft in echoing the slowly growing voice of the public to carry this issue forwards. The time for reform has never been more necessary.