Science & Tech, World

Surveillance and Privacy: Big Data For Better Lives?

You are living in a world where you are being watched. No, really you are, as a matter of fact, we all are. Almost everyone in today’s society leaves digital footprints everywhere they go. The people we call, the places we go, the things we eat, and the products we buy all tell the story of our daily lives. Every time we partake in these activities, it is being tracked and fed into the digital vortex known as Big Data.

So what is Big Data exactly? Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. This data comes from digital pictures, videos, posts to social media sites, intelligent sensors, purchase transaction records, and cell phone GPS signals just to name a few. This massive collection of information is known Big Data. Using data analysis to interpret Big Data we can trace the lives of a single person, or a group collectively.

Knowing this, it is evident that tracking data in this way can have both positive and negative aspects. Let’s talk about some of the benefits first.

Benefits of Big Data

We are all social animals, and our individual behavior is never as different from others as we might think. The people you call, text, and spend time with, even the people you recognize from your neighborhood, but have never formally met, are likely to be similar to you in all kinds of ways. Because our behavior changes when we feel like we are getting sick- we go different places, buy different things, call different people and search for different terms on the web- it is now possible, using Big Data analysis, to make a constantly update-able map that predicts where residents of a city are most likely to come down with the flu at any given time. Harvard researchers also found that Twitter data could be used to track the spread of cholera in Haiti faster than traditional methods. This could obviously be used to track the spread of other diseases as well.

Is Big Data Helpful?

Helping people in crisis situations is another promising benefit. Big Data could be used to plan better evacuation plans and mobilize emergency teams more quickly. As two examples, people used Google fusion tables to create maps with critical information for people in Japan after the earthquake in 2011 and before the hurricane in New York City later that year.

Healthcare is yet another example of Big Data for the good. We can leverage data from patient records, family records, prescriptions, the food we eat, even the products we buy, to give our professionals a clearer picture of how to take care of us. This could potentially be used to track the efficiency of therapeutic routines in sicknesses (aids, cancer, muscular dystrophy, etc.) and predict better regiments.

Big Data obviously has many social benefits, much more than listed here, but what about the downside?


There are three pitfalls that are easily identifiable; funding, data interpretation, and most importantly, the invasion of our privacy.

Big Data Pitfalls

Funding is the first step of making Big Data useful and is also one of the hardest matters to conquer. Most major corporations that collect this data use it to produce profits, so most of the data not relevant to making money is ignored or discarded making it hard to gain the funding to properly study it. This leaves having to obtain government grants or organize fundraisers, in which case our money becomes involved.

The next problem is the data itself. It’s very hard to set a standard for data interpretation when you have such vast amounts. This is referred to as the problem of the “4v’s”. You have to account for: volume (sheer size of the data), variety (handling multiple types, sources, and formats), velocity (reacting to information in a given time), and veracity (how can uncertainty, missing values, and misinterpretations be resolved?).

Does Big Data Contradict Privacy?

Another downside to this data gathering is clearly the invasion of our privacy. Where is our data going? What is it being used for? How do we even know what data is being collected? No one seems to be able to answer these questions right now. Alex Pentland, a professor at MIT, has proposed what he calls The New Deal on Data to rectify this problem.

The deal consists of three points.

  1. You have the right to possess data about you. Regardless of who collects the data, it belongs to you, and you can access it at any time. Data collectors then would play a role much like a bank, managing the data on behalf of their “customers”.
  2. You have the right to full control over the use of your data. The terms of use must be opt-in and clearly explained. If you are not happy with the way a company uses your data, you can simply remove it.
  3. You have the right to dispose or distribute your data. You keep the option to have data about you destroyed or redeployed. Hopefully, we can use this deal to take back control over our information.

For the first time in history, we can see enough about ourselves to build social systems better than the ones we have previously had. Imagine that we could predict and prevent financial crashes, detect and prevent infectious diseases, use our natural resources wisely and encourage our society to flourish with each other’s help. Big Data could behold a brighter future for us, as long as we proceed with care.

About Jennifer Marie

Jennifer, lives in a small town with her husband and 3 children. An art and literature enthusiast with a profound interest in theology and other aspects of the supernatural. She likes to garden and write poetry. To travel the world and experience cultures other than my own and to live in a world free of social prejudice are her greatest dreams.

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