Big Data, Meet Big Brother

If computers can now predict our behavior, should governments watch our every move?

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    As Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier point out, if the computers can make predictions based on data analysis, should we prevent bad actions by arresting people before they act? This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The NSA program Prism aims to identify suspicious patterns to allow the government to prevent terrorism (i.e., to act before an attack takes place). A research project at the Department of Homeland Security that tried to predict terrorist behavior based on people's vital signs--physiological patterns--was 70% accurate, according to the authors.

    As far as we know, the U.S. government has broken no laws and has followed all established procedures, and Congress approved this program, though it did so in secret, writing laws that aren't public. Obama Administration officials, echoing their (slightly less transparent) predecessors in the Bush era, insist that any fishing expeditions undertaken through terabytes of collected data are highly targeted and do not involve innocent Americans.

    Maybe so, but over the past 33 years, the Executive Branch has made 33,900 requests for surveillance to a special court created to make sure there are solid grounds to grant these surveillance powers. The court has approved all but 11 of them. Is that genuine oversight? It is hard to say, for the court itself is secret. Shouldn't we know more?

    The larger question Big Data raises is, Should any government be permitted to use computer analysis--even if highly accurate--to observe, inform on, quarantine or even arrest people simply because they are likely to do something bad? That seems like a scenario from a horrifying sci-fi thriller. Yet here we are, very close to a real-world version. Is that compatible with life in a free society?


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