If you’re looking for an Orwellian take on big data, you’ve come to the right place. Technology can be used for both good and evil and data science is no exception.
With their vast computing resources and wealth of population data, governments are especially poised for nefarious undertakings in this regard. The following are 6 examples of government behaving badly with big data.
6. Predictive policing à la Minority Report.
In the superb Phillip K. Dick short story (and Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller) The Minority Report, the police of the future use psychic abilities to pre-empt crimes that have yet to occur. Swap out that last bit about psychic abilities with big data, and you’ve got what the Chicago Police Department calls “predictive policing.” Using powerful software tools and vast data sets, the department generated a list of individuals most likely to commit a crime in the future and paid these folks a friendly uniformed visit.
5. Tracking individuals across locations.
Big data coupled with the cloud’s computing and storage resources means information from vast, disparate sources can be easily aggregated and analyzed. The U.K.—infamous for its ubiquitous, sprawling CCTV network—can track pedestrians and vehicles anywhere within the confines of the city using facial recognition, location-based services, gait recognition algorithms, and more.
4. Monitoring data from phone taps and telephone companies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NSA has used big data technology for processing data from phone taps and metadata from telephone companies, ostensibly for the purpose of combating terrorism. Check out this interactive timeline of the NSA’s domestic spying activities, created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
3. The creation of the Information Awareness Office.
Though defunded by the U.S. Congress in 2003, the Information Awareness Office’s (IAO) purpose was to consolidate the personal information—personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, biometric data, and more—of everyone in the U.S. into one database. Again, the program’s backers claimed that its purpose was to identify terrorist suspects.
2. Tracking license plates and drivers.
They’re installed at stop lights, toll booths, and a myriad of other spots along our highways and byways. Automatic license plate readers are currently used for preventing crime and capturing traffic violations, but can just as easily track an individual’s whereabouts and most frequented locations for other more sinister purposes.
1. The NSA’s PRISM.
Edward Snowden’s 2013 release of confidential NSA documents exposed the agency’s so-called PRISM program: a surveillance initiative that collected the private electronic data of all citizens—even of those that were not suspected of any connection to terrorism or wrongdoing. Gmail, Facebook, Apple, and Outlook were a few of the companies and internet services tapped by PRISM for information.
Uncommon instances of government behaving badly or a sign of the times? You be the judge. Whatever the case may be, the preceding 6 examples illustrate how the power of technology left unchecked can undermine more than a few civil liberties.