Big data: Beware, Big Brother is analyzing!

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

The terms “big data” and “data analytics” are among the new vocabulary of the internet/communications age.  The terms, first introduced around 2002, are used to describe the process of examining large data sets containing a

Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

The terms “big data” and “data analytics” are among the new vocabulary of the internet/communications age.  The terms, first introduced around 2002, are used to describe the process of examining large data sets containing a
variety of electronic data types to uncover patterns, correlations, trends,
preferences and other
useful information. Some of the best applications come from millions of data results generated by
experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN research center. Out of these millions of data, a very small number will indicate the existence of the Higgs boson (the God particle).  Such an effort of special data analysis requires experts who develop new ways to use the processing power of modern computers.
However, the techniques of big data soon found their use in commercial, governmental and political spheres.  The difference is that while scientists use data collected in labs or observatories, these others use internet traffic, which can be monitored – web pages, email, Twitter, Facebook, online purchases, blogs, other social media usage. Commercial use of this data include: detecting trends, preferences, detailed demographics, planning, and direct advertising. In general, businesses use big data from the internet to improve their competitive advantage.
The story is somewhat different for government use of big data. Essentially, it is an elaborate spy system conducted in the name of national security. Current laws require all ISP suppliers to retain all internet data for a minimum of seven years to ensure it is available to government agencies on request. Further, the government conducts its own real-time monitoring of internet traffic without any consideration of privacy or confidentiality of the data – all done in the belief that terrorists can be found and tracked by their internet use under the guise of “total information awareness”.
The use of internet
traffic for partisan political use can be traced back to the 2008 Democratic
presidential campaigns, especially that of Barack Obama. Here in Canada, the political parties, especially the Conservative Party, were quick to learn. Data is gathered from the various social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google Plus, which is
then analyzed for
potential political interest. Information on senders and receivers are correlated and profiles that are intended to point political candidates to supporters, opponents, topics of concern, and other relevant information that could affect the way a campaign is conducted is developed.
Political organizations will claim this intense use of big data allows for more efficient and effective
use of the organization’s resources, but it does lead to a very different type of political campaigning.  By concentrating on specific, individual issues, more general policy and legislative proposals are ignored. For example, in the last campaign, there was considerable concern about specific pipelines, but no mention of a national
energy policy. Similarly, the niqab issue created much interest, but a general discussion of minority rights and roles in Canadian society was absent.
There is no question about the presence of the internet in our lives. What big data demonstrates is the need for transparency by those who collect and use the information
gathered from internet traffic.  There must also be clear laws, both national and international, on
privacy and use of social media.  Until there is some general agreement on these issues, the only recourse a person has is prudence and care about how one uses the internet.