In 1997, an IBM supercomputer called “Deep Blue” beat chess world champion, Garry Kasparov. To better appreciate that feat, it may help to know that the device had a unique edge over its opponent—it could evaluate a billion possible moves every five seconds. Astronomical figures, for sure, to any person even by today’s standards. But then consider that Google’s self-driving car can process a million environmental readings per second. Equipped with laser range-finders, motion detectors, radar and sonar transmitters, video cameras, and GPS receivers, this “smart” vehicle can sense its surroundings down to their minute details. Processing all these information in real time allows it to navigate the “real world”, with all its surprises and complexities.
Fantastic stories like these are made possible by big data—that enigmatic buzzword that’s caused quite a stir these past several years because of its tremendous impact on people’s lives and the largely untapped potential it still holds.
It has no universally recognized definition. One paper describes it as made up of “large, diverse, complex, longitudinal, and/or distributed datasets generated from instruments, sensors, Internet transactions, email, video, click streams, and/or other digital sources available today and in the future.” A couple of authors describe it as society’s ability to “harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights and services of significant value.”
Beyond this dilemma, though, everyone seems to agree that it has three principal characteristics: (1) volume (i.e., it involves large datasets); (2) velocity (i.e., accumulation, generation, or processing of data is at near-real-time rate), and variety (i.e., it is derived from many different sources).
Today, it has many practical applications that affect nearly everyone, even if most people are probably unaware of it. From ride-sharing to traffic and navigation apps, personalized ads to delivery tracking, telecommunications to medicine, big data use is everywhere. Lives are significantly more comfortable, and in some cases, extended, because of the technical capabilities it has made possible and available.
Of course, not everything about it is seen through rose-tinted glasses. There are some concerns, too:
- It can perpetuate pre-existing biases. When used to determine a person’s identity, or build his or her profile (e.g., creditworthiness, likelihood of committing a crime, suitability for a job, etc.) without any type of regulation, it could aggravate existing discriminatory practices or cause them even if none existed before.
- It can violate a person’s privacy. Because it makes data collection and processing easier for governments and businesses, people and their personal information are more vulnerable to abuse. We are already seeing this now with China’s mandatory social credit system for its citizens, where a person’s credit score determines whether he or she gets benefits, or is deprived of them. The ID system the Philippines is poised can be used in a similar manner, should the government so wish.
- It is not immune to fraud. A person familiar with its inner workings could game the system in order to obtain favorable decisions or analyses. This can be done by providing or generating falsified data, which one knows will be collected and processed by the system. If this becomes prevalent, it could undermine the reliability of the entire system as a source of information for policies and decision-making processes.
- It blurs the lines of accountability. The way it works makes traditional grievance mechanisms obsolete. Indeed, if a self-driving car causes an accident, who is to blame? The owner? The manufacturer? The program developer? It also doesn’t make things easier that big data systems are typically run by algorithms that organizations consider to be confidential for proprietary reasons.
- It tends to outpace the policies designed to keep it in check. Like most technologies, big data and its applications are left unregulated for long spells because of the inability of policymakers to keep up with their IT peers. Users end up as the losers if something undesirable should occur and no law is in place to afford them any relief.
These issues should be taken seriously and addressed even as society continues to lunge forward, making the most of everything big data has to offer. After all, adopting new technologies in the name of progress, without taking care of their flaws and the risks they pose, is no real progress.
Ultimately, whether big data ends up making society and life, in general, better will still boil down to people’s adherence to ethical principles, the rule of law, and the will to ensure that those responsible for this technology are accountable.
For more information about this topic, check out the briefing paper by the Foundation for Media Alternatives.
Jamael Jacob is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the Director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.