Just imagine you are sitting on your sofa watching American Idol on TV when you and your partner have a little spat about who should be voted out. For whatever reason the little disagreement escalates into a full-blown argument. What’s different this time is that your TV, using its in-built microphone, picks up your feud and sells this information in real-time to a marriage-counseling provider who is then able to stream an ad for their services right to your living room. Crazy futuristic vision? No, this exact scenario was outlined in a recent patent application by one of the major broadband and telecom companies in the U.S.

Today, we have the technology to analyze spoken words and images to not only detect what someone is saying but the exact sentiment with which something is said. In other recent articles I have discussed how companies like Google and Facebook are already using this technology to learn everything about you and then sell these insights to others for a profit. We can’t really complain because we have signed up to their terms and conditions and selling what they learn about you is at the heart of their business model. 

In this article I want to explore the darker side of big data in more detail. I have always said that big data will completely transform our world and revolutionize the way businesses engage with customers, scientists find new medicine, governments run their country and we see ourselves. In my first two ‘Big Data Guru’ posts I explained what big data really is and outlined the many exciting ways big data is used today. However, I also promised to tackle the dark side of big data, so here we go.

As with most technological advances, they can be used for good or evil. So let me paint 3 pictures of how big data is or could be used for both something good and exciting as well as something more evil and scary. 

1. Big data is good for your health but can lead to discrimination

The Exciting – We increasingly measure and ‘quantify ourselves’ using wearable devices such as Smart Bands and Smart Watches. For example, I use the RunKeeper app on my phone to track my runs. I also wear an Up Band which collects data on my calorie consumption, my sleep quality, etc. In fact, both apps are linked so my runs are added to my Up analysis. The other gadget I use are smart scales that recognize me when I step on them and will send my weight, heart rate, body mass index, etc. via Bluetooth to my Up application. We are just seeing the beginnings of all of this. Just imagine how this opens up a world of increasing self-awareness and with an obesity and health crisis amongst us, this can only be a good thing, right? You might have seen the smart diapers you can now get that will tweet you when your baby has filled them. What’s more, the first prototype diapers are now available that have inbuilt technology to automatically analyze the urine and alert you to any infections or health problems. 

This is the first time in history that individuals track their health, their exercise routines, their food consumption, their sleep, and soon so much more. Just think how biotech companies and governments could use this information to e.g. correlate this with disease patterns to create predictive models that will alert us to risks and allow us to take preventative actions.

The Scary - I know that there will be some people that don’t want to know about their health. I am on the other side; I want to know when there is something wrong with me, even if it was serious. I’d love to have my DNA decoded and analyzed. Advances in analytics will enable us to decode the DNA of individuals in minutes. It will be so cheap that it becomes a routine check at birth – or even before! A more scary idea is that health insurance companies could use (or even demand) your data to customize their premiums. Yes, on one level I would welcome this because it could reward the ones with a healthier life-style. But what if my DNA analysis and all of the self-quantification finds some serious underlying health problems with me, which mean no insurer would be willing to take me on? This could lead to some serious discrimination against the unfortunate who just happens to have the wrong DNA code.

2. Big data helps to make customers transparent but this can be taken too far 

The Exciting – Big data analytics is creating the transparent customer. Most things we do today leave a digital data trail behind us. If we post a picture on Twitter or a status up-date on Facebook then this leaves a trail that can be analyzed forever! If we search on anything using Google it will be stored and linked to our profile. If we purchase anything using a credit card then the card company will have a record of it, which they can analyze. If we make a phone call or send a text message then our telecom provider will have a record of whom we called, when and for how long (as well as a recording of what was actually said!). All of this creates a transparent customer and allows for targeted marketing. I put the targeted marketing under the ‘exciting’ heading but know that the opinions are split here and that for some people targeted marketing is already as evil as it gets. However, I can see many positives. Take the ‘people who bought this item also bought’ recommendations by Amazon as an example. I found many new and relevant books that way. However, with the emergence of big data analytics we can now go beyond the simple correlation analysis of buying patterns. Companies can use many other forms of data such as social media posts, pictures etc. and integrate it with their traditional transactional data, and I feel this is where things are starting to get scary again.

The Scary – The scenario in the opening paragraph of this article highlights a scarier situation where a TV or set-top box records a conversation and analyses it using text analytics to decode what is being said. The fact that Google reads the content of our emails (not a person but a machine) and combines any insights with our search behavior I find scary. The fact that Facebook is collecting data about what websites you are visiting (even if you visit them outside of Facebook) is also scary. The increasing data trail we are leaving combined with the ever-more foggy and complex privacy agreements makes it difficult to control access to our data. It is really okay to assume that because I am using a free app all my data can be accessed and exploited? Even I have to say that I am increasingly unsure what exactly happens to a lot of my data. What really happens when I use RunKeeper on my phone and the data is then shared with Jarbone (the company behind the UpBand), who else will be able to access it? What will they be able to do with it? Who can and will access my social media data? Any post, like or up-load on social media sides such as Facebook or Twitter are public by default and even if we have secured everything certain apps we use will still be able to access data. The problem is that big data analytics of our social media data can now be used to safely predict things we might not want to reveal, including our age, our sexuality, our religious and political view as well as our intelligence and emotional stability (see my post here for more detail). Are we really comfortable with the fact that Wal-Mart is able to take data from your past buying patterns, your mobile phone location data, your social media post and combine this with their internal stock information as well as external weather information so it can send you a voucher for a BBQ cleaner to your phone – but only if you own a barbeque, the weather is nice and you currently are within a 3 miles radius of a Wal-Mart store that has the BBQ cleaner in stock? This brings me to my next discussion point: Location data. 

3. Big data can find you the best way home but can also hunt you down anywhere

The Exciting - Most of us carry with us smart phones that have GPS sensors in them. This allows your phone (and any company that you give access to it) to track exactly where you are at any given point in time. Telecom companies can even locate you without the GPS sensors simply by the location of the closest phone mast that is picking up your signal. The GPS sensors in smart phones track not only were we are but also how fast we are going at any point in time. This is useful to identify traffic jams and predict traffic volumes (e.g. Google uses this type of information from Android phones to provide live traffic updates on Google Maps).  There are many other exciting and useful applications. Your car can alert the emergency services if you have an accident and direct them to where you are and apps can predict potholes in the road by analyzing the behaviors of drivers to avoid them (e.g. slow down, move around or a little bump in the z axis of the GPS followed by acceleration). Insurance companies like Progressive or AXA are already making use of this technology by offering you better premiums if you are driving well. Insurers are now using data from the smart phones we carry to analyze where you go, how well you drive, whether you stick to speed restrictions, etc. 

The Scary – Companies and government organizations know exactly where you are this second if they have access to your location data. Which leaves me to an ultra scary scenario.  With all the data and information about us out there, what would happen if companies like Google or Facebook turned evil? What would happen if Governments turned ugly and demanded access to all our data? (We know from the NSA revelations that they already do!) This is bad enough in a well-functioning democracy but what if the data gets into the hands of the wrong people? Just imagine what would have happened if Hitler had access to all the big data out there today. In his novel ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ George Orwell painted a futuristic picture of an evil world where an omnipresent government surveillance headed by Big Brother is watching and controlling everyone. Do you believe George Orwell might be turning in his grave right now?

Big data analytics only works if we give companies and governments access to our data. Yet, I believe very strongly that most people are completely oblivious of the fact that when they sign up for Facebook or download free apps they also give third-partly companies permission to access and use their data. This cavalier attitude to sharing our data is leading us to a tipping point from where there really is no turning back. You could argue that this is not really a bad thing as long as you have nothing to hide. And lost privacy might be a worthwhile price to pay for all the positive innovations we will see. The big concern I have is what happens when, for whatever reason, the government or powerful companies turn evil? I feel that this is such an important debate to be had and one that many data and analytics experts and vendors seem to shy away from. What do you think? Please let me know your thoughts.

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