If big data is an atomic bomb, disarmament begins in Silicon Valley

Big data is like atomic energy, according to scientist Albert-László Barabási in a Monday column on Politico. It’s very beneficial when used ethically, and downright destructive when turned into a weapon. He argues scientists can help resolve the damage done by government spying by embracing the principles of nuclear nonproliferation that helped bring an end to Cold War fears and distrust.

Barabási’s analogy is rather poetic:

“Powered by the right type of Big Data, data mining is a weapon. It can be just as harmful, with long-term toxicity, as an atomic bomb. It poisons trust, straining everything from human relations to political alliances and free trade. It may target combatants, but it cannot succeed without sifting through billions of data points scraped from innocent civilians. And when it is a weapon, it should be treated like a weapon.”

I think he’s right, but I think the fight to disarm the big data bomb begins in places like Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. And it’s not just scientists; all citizens should have a role.

Death by a thousand cuts

If people seem nonplussed about all the NSA revelations over the past few months, it’s because they’ve already been beaten down by the privacy practices that follow them across the web. We’re not just talking about the United States, Soviet Union and a handful of other countries having the bomb — we’re talking about that post-9/11 fear that there’s a dirty bomb in every suitcase. When you’re operating under the assumption that Facebook(s fb), Google(s goog), Acxiom(s acxm) and every ad network already know everything about you, hearing that the government is stepping up its data-mining efforts just doesn’t have too big an impact.

Even viewing Barabási's column, I was getting ads based on recent travel planning.

Even viewing Barabási’s column, I was getting ads based on recent travel planning. And those are San Francisco hotels at the top right.

For the less-fearful, maybe it’s more like getting lemon juice in a paper cut. It smarts for a minute and you grimace, but the stinging passes soon enough. When it’s gone, the cut is still there; it’s just a little stickier now.

Once we start rationalizing these things, it becomes easy enough to give the government a pass because at least its behavior might stop your neighborhood from blowing up. Heck, maybe it should be stockpiling nukes. Maybe my phone calls really shouldn’t be private.

Get the part of our house that doesn’t involve terrorism in order first

That’s why any calls for reform in the ethics of data need to start in the commercial sector. If we have a healthy respect for digital privacy, and understanding of it, in our everyday lives, we can actually demand more from the government.

However, what this ends up looking like remains very much up in the air. Americans love free web services, the freedom to innovate and freedom in contracts, so European regulations about data ownership and what web companies can do with our data seem a bit unlikely. In some ways, this is great.

I write about big data and data mining for a living, and I think the underlying technologies and techniques are incredibly valuable, even if the applications aren’t always ideal. On the one hand, advances in machine learning from companies such as Google and Microsoft are fantastic. On the other hand, Facebook’s newly expanded Graph Search makes Europe’s proposed right-to-be-forgotten laws seem a lot more sensible.

But it’s all within the bounds of our user agreements and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps the reason we don’t vote with our feet by moving to web platforms that embrace privacy, even though we suspect it’s being violated, is that we really don’t know what privacy means. Instead of regulating what companies can and can’t do, perhaps lawmakers can mandate a degree of transparency that actually lets users understand how data is being used, not just what data is being collected. Great, some company knows my age, race, ZIP code and web history: What I really need to know is how it’s using that information to target, discriminate against or otherwise serve me.

An intelligent national discussion about the role of the NSA is probably in order. For all anyone knows,  it could even turn out we’re willing to put up with more snooping than the goverment might expect. But until we get a handle on privacy from the companies we choose to do business with, I don’t think most Americans have the stomach for such a difficult fight.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user solarseven.