6 March 2014
Pros and Cons of Big Data Spying
Ex-NSA Official Warns Tech Firms: Stop Spying
At MIT Workshop, Researchers Weigh Pros, Cons Of Big Data
March 4, 2014
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. After it was revealed that the National Security
Agency was monitoring the phone calls of world leaders and storing massive
amounts of data about the rest of us, President Obama gave a major policy
speech about individual privacy and modern technology.
When you cut through the noise, whats really at stake is how
we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying
speed, he said in January.
To explore this new world where governments and companies have the ability
to amass, analyze and use vast amounts of personal information, the president
ordered a comprehensive review of whats called big data.
The first of three meetings in this review process took place at MIT Monday.
Big Data And The Future
Big data is a big deal, says White House adviser John Podesta, head of the
presidential study on the future of privacy and big data and the keynote
speaker at the MIT workshop.
Were undergoing a revolution in the way that information about
our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements and
even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used,
Podesta was supposed to appear in person but a snowstorm grounded him in
Washington, D.C. He spoke by phone and suggested the trajectory of technology
and our willingness to make public our personal information seems clear.
On Facebook there are some 350 million photos uploaded and shared every
day, he said. On YouTube 100 hours of video is uploaded every
minute, and were only in the very nascent stage of the Internet of
things, where our appliances will communicate with each other and sensors
will be nearly ubiquitous.
Podesta said soon, not only will users of big data be able to analyze our
past behavior, theyll be able to predict it in advance.
Online retailer Amazon recently got a patent for what it calls
anticipatory shipping, delivering products you want even before
you buy them.
How should we think about individuals sense of their identity
when data reveals things about them they didnt even know about
themselves? Podesta asked. In this study we want to explore the
capabilities of big data analytics but also the social and policy implications
of that capability.
The Potential Benefits
The MIT workshop included heavy-hitters in the privacy-big data debate. One
panel included Prof. John Guttag, head of MITs Electrical Engineering
and Computer Science Department. He argued that big data, using personal
electronic medical records, can prevent the spread of deadly hospital infections.
Progress in health care is too important and too urgent to wait for
privacy to be solved, he said. Im for privacy but not at
the cost of avoidable pain, suffering and death.
The technology game-changer in the privacy-big data debate is the device
which we hold near and dear and use to share our most personal, intimate
information willingly and sometimes unknowingly. Its the mobile
phone, said MIT database researcher Sam Madden.
In 2011 there were 5 billion cellphones in the world, he said.
I think thats kind of amazing statistic because its like
more than the number of people who have shoes or toilets or toothbrushes.
And of those 5 billion phones, 1 billion were already these smartphone-class
devices with broadband-style Internet connections. And you guys probably
all know your smartphones are already heavily equipped with sensors, and
theyre going to become increasingly more so.
We already wear data transmitting devices that monitor how much exercise
we get. That can be used in medical studies. There are cameras on highways,
subways and buildings watching our every movement to prevent terrorist attacks
and regulate the flow of traffic. Sharing our private data can have public
benefit, Madden said.
There are studies that show in the riskiest group of young, male drivers,
that they will reduce their risky behavior by up to 72 percent if they know
that they are being monitored, he said. So you can talk about
whether this is a societally compelling good or not. Obviously monitoring
your teenage drivers is risky, but we would like to reduce unsafe driving
behavior. That seems societally compelling. Of course there is no clear-cut
answer. I think we as a society have to decide what were comfortable
Big data has the potential to become Big Brother as we willingly invite access
into our lives because of the perceived benefits. Carol Rose, executive director
of Massachusetts ACLU, says therell be hearings in the State House
Wednesday on the use of big data from drones and license plate readers.
Drones, license plate readers may have uses but theyre only useful
if theyre used in a way that isnt abused by people who have access
to that information to track you, to harass you or to otherwise violate your
rights, she said. So we need to find a way to balance the law
that protects our privacy with the ability to have technology. I think its
possible for us to be both safe and free.
The presidential panel on big data and privacy will hold two more meetings
around the country and within 90 days issue its report on ways to balance
privacy and the collection of massive amounts of personal information.