Friday, February 12, 2016

How Scary Can Big Data Get

There are plenty of people talking repeatedly and forcefully about resisting the infection of public education by the many tentacle-like limbs of Big Data. We know that reformsters have been talking for decades about the prospect of a cradle-to-career pipeline in which all manner of data can be collected and crunched and used to determine how best society can use the human beings that the data represents.

But if you want to see a real-world, already-happening demonstration of what this kind of data looks like, check out this article from the Washington Post that ran last month. "The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat score."

Think Minority Report. Except instead of a predictive criminal system based on three psychics floating in a small pool, it's a giant pool of all the data from everywhere.

The article centers on Fresno's Real Time Crime Center, a high tech hub that allows police to access a gazillion data points available on the on-line world-- including feeds from 800 school and traffic cameras. There's also a library of license plate scans. The city is also networked with microphones that can figure out the location of gunshots. And of course there's a program to monitor social media.

But the scariest of all is a program called Beware. By using special proprietary (and therefore secret) algorithms, Beware can create a color-coded threat level for any person and for any address.

It's not like this is a senseless program with no point. Police repeatedly walk into situations without a clue whether they're facing a relatively harmless citizen or a dangerous menace. To be able to access someone's record in real time, knowing what their most likely response will be-- that was the advantage that small town cops had because they already knew everybody. And this is not just an advantage to police-- if police walk into a non-volatile situation with their own tension dialed back, perhaps a few fewer innocent citizens might not get shot.

But at the same time, the level of access is creepy. And when we attach that kind of data access to Everything a Student Ever Did in School, including databases that attempt to assess students social and emotional characteristics-- well, it's not hard to imagine police approaching someone with guns drawn and ready to fire at a danger-tagged suspect because that suspect had some behavior problems in second grade and some computer software thinks his teenage video gaming habits showed violent tendencies.

Pop culture has numbed us to much of this abuse. The noble heroes of shows like NCIS and Bones and the like regularly violate data privacy, but hey-- they're good guys who are just trying to stop bad guys. But what if the data is not being accessed by Jethro Gibbs, but by J. Edgar Hoover.

Big Data would like to get these data collections up and running for every citizen, and they'd like to get started on children, even infants, before anyone has a chance to object. These are complex and difficult issues, and they deserve a long and careful conversation in our country, but the conversation has barely begun to begin, and the construction of the Surveillance State is already well under way.

1 comment:

  1. Check out the TV show, Person of Interest, to see a fictional account that explores some of these difficult issues that need a careful conversation.

    Here is philosopher's blog that looks at the ethical problems surrounding Big Data: