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Is Big Data Synonymous With Big Brother?

Christina Medici Scolaro
Big Data Download
Is Big Data Synonymous With Big Brother?

Big data: As the name suggests, it's big. In fact, it’s huge, but is it becoming a beast that can’t be controlled? Is the case of Edward Snowden—the whistle blower who revealed secret U.S. surveillance programs to the world—a sign that big data is now synonymous with Big Brother?

A few things that fall under the big data umbrella are details about every single American’s Internet browsing habits, smartphone trails, whom we’re emailing and calling as well as our medical information. When data scientists analyze those things, diseases may be cured or prevented and businesses can thrive by knowing what its customers want in just a few seconds.

How can we be assured though that it won’t be put in the wrong hands?

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“The whole notion of a transparent society terrifies me,” said Bob Sullivan, columnist for NBC News.com’s Red Tape Chronicles. “I feel like that’s a code word for it’s OK for people to know everything about me. Even if you think you don’t have anything to hide, you might have something to hide in the future. There’s just someone, somewhere that you don’t want to know everything about you.”

Daniel Weitzner, director at M.I.T. Decentralized Information Group for the school’s computer science and artificial intelligence lab, said people have to start thinking about privacy differently. He said a transparent society isn’t walking around naked and being totally exposed. People need to be assured that the information collected is not going to be misused. Weitzner said people should be certain that institutions that hold this data are subject to some outside scrutiny and oversight.

Sullivan says policy is very, very weak in the face of technology.

“This data is (a) radioactive waste of our time. We need to get rid of this data when it’s necessary,” he said.

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But Weitzner says that’s a pipe dream. “We’re not going to throw away all that data because it’s got real public uses and it can improve people’s lives and it can also make a lot of people money,” he said.

One thing they agree on is the need for stricter policy and controls. “That’s the way we can have both progress on social and economic fronts and also make sure that, as you say, we don’t become a totalitarian society,” Weitzner said.

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