/ bigdata

Beginners' critique of Big Data

Big Data

Big Data

Big Data

B.I.G. Data


If you didn't live in a cave in the past few decades, you probably noticed the explosion of products and services using the internet. Everyone's so excited about this Big Data thing. Well, almost everyone.
This one is a party pooper. Excuse me 4 ruining your party.
The article will give you 3 main easy-peasy reasons why you should start asking questions.

Sit back, seatbelts on and have a wonderful ride! only with Optin4Privacy.com (curtain lifting)


But hold on..

What on earth is Big Data?

Big Data is what comes out of the digitalization of more and more aspects of our everyday life. From constantly connecting devices to the internet (phones, watches, fridges, lightning, toys etc) to developing smart cities (license plate -scanning parking, traffic lights, etc) to Social Media such as Facebook. Humans using what I just mentioned are all producing data about their activity. As you probably guessed, that's quite a big part of Earth's population. The examples I mentioned are probably 1% of all data that can be extracted. The industry is so huge that I doubt it can be fully mapped. If you're curious, here's some easy facts on Big Data.

"What's with all the fuss?"

. . . you might ask yourself.

They use to say, with critical voices, that "If you're not paying for it, you're the product being sold". So what? I mean, if we want innovative products and services, sustainable cities and comfort, in general, we better contribute by allowing the industry to extract information about how users behave. Is it really such a massive end of the world?

Now, we're ready.
Below I'm just going to focus on the main reasons why the future doesn't seem to smell that rosy in this Big Data context.

1. Users' lack of knowledge, industry's lack of cooperation

Didn't read those thousand-page Terms and Conditions? Well, bad luck.

As a customer/user, one has little or no idea about what happens with their data. When is it collected, why is it collected or how is it being handled and shared with third parties. This sort of information is buried in Terms and Conditions. Terms and Conditions is the section you're in a hurry to agree to before you finally finish the registration on the desired website/app/..

Clicking "accept" in the T&C section = giving consent?

Users don't generally read these things. A company even hid a reward in their end user license agreements and it took 3000 sales and 5 months in 2005 until someone claimed it. Imagine how much has the internet grown since and how many sales it would take today to make that discovery.

The EU has recently regulated how should companies obtain consent. According to new laws, consent has to be informed. This means that before providing users with a digital product/service, a company has to ensure users read and understand how collection and use of their data happens. I guess this proves how unacceptable is to assume that ticking a box is what consent looks like. Why did there had to be a law about consent being "informed"? Wouldn't a company, be it an app, a website etc, want to make T&C clear for all their users?

Informed users means less data.

Businesses that breathe user-data cannot afford considering too much users' consent and receive it in an informed way. It deteriorates the classic business model of the big data industry.

Facebook's business model is based on their ability to sell your data so that advertisers can understand whose Newsfeed should they market a particular product/service. Facebook is therefore not so keen on informing its users on how they can stop data collection or hide advertised content.

This means less data to use for the company or to sell forward to other entities wanting to buy that data. Until 2016, the EU had a law around this subject dating from 1995. That's before the internet even happened. As a result, business practices have evolved at a huge rate. So huge that in the past two years, more data has been produced than in the whole history of human kind.

But no one says data should not be collected. What critics are against is the way this is done. A sneaky way in, a side door, instead of the front door. Why should that be? Surely plenty of you readers would condemn those bastards raping a girl after they all got drunk together. Which is fair enough. Those who wouldn't and jump to the "What did she expect?" question.. Well, I'll answer for her. "No, not being raped. Probably a hangover." But maybe she would've liked to get laid, have an orgy or who knows what, IF ONLY SHE WOULD'VE BEEN ASKED BEFORE. If she would've known the implications of getting drunk with those folks, maybe she would've decided to drink with someone else. Same with data collection... unless users are informed and made aware of what using a product/service means to them, it's really not cool to change the purpose of your "date".

2. New DigiPrivacy laws for ... ?

As I mentioned above, the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been voted in 2016. Companies and users have 2 years to prepare for it, so it is going to be effective from April 2018. I already mentioned that under this new law, companies have to receive informed consent from their users for data collection and processing. Other points of the law are the the right to erasure of personal data (replacing the right to be forgotten), the right to restrict data processing for specific purposes only and the right to be informed when data breaches happen. If you're curious about the rest, you can read a nontechie - friendly guide to GDPR here.

GDPR - protecting users or empowering businesses?

The GDPR is in general a step forward to promoting users' digital rights. Unfortunately though, most of the material surrounding GDPR aims at preparing businesses to be ready to comply with the law. On top of legal guides as the one prepared by Bird&Bird, there are several initiatives who make the business case for privacy. More and more companies are recognizing this business case and aim for privacy-as-a-competitive advantage approaches. They understood that users actually value privacy.

The fact that businesses turn a legal burden into a competitive advantage is not a bad thing in itself. Responsible businesses practices regarding users' data are surely a good idea. The issue arises when users have no clue about their rights, in order to critically assess whether they're being respected or not. It's like a government voted a law empowering miners' rights, but they only communicate it to private mining companies. If the miners don't know their rights, what good is the law?

Dolphins vs Cats

Few GDPR guides speak to users.

Users are again lacking knowledge around a subject that directly concerns them.

We are put in a situation in which a new legal and business framework is being set around users' data, but the central actors - the users - are being left out from the party.

I am not aware of any informational/educational campaigns directed at them, regarding GDPR. If anyone reading this knows of any, please do get in touch. Otherwise, it seems the GDPR is just another tick in a box too, like the Terms and Conditions it criticizes it. The EU legal bodies need to cooperate with non-governmental entities to ensure all actors involved are informed on their rights and obligations.

I know, I know. They'll say it's not their responsibility to educate users on their rights. Well, I feel the opposite. An article from the European Digital Rights Institute shows that EU Commission required a survey on the topic and found that

Nearly 60% of individuals in the EU had avoided certain websites for privacy reasons, while 82% were in favour of restrictions on cookies."

When authorities know that such a huge share of online users are concerned about their online privacy and safety, I think there is a responsibility to communicating the new tools in place to protect them.

Now you'll say I'm hippie anti-capitalist and I should go live in the woods if I don't agree with how things work 'round here. Leaving the anti-capitalist feeling aside... Huge amounts of data collection have wider implications than their economical impact. In the end, it all boils down to politics.

3. Populism on the rise, democracy on the fall

There used to be a time not so long ago when politicians denied that big corporations were involved in politics. Globalization happened, big corps spread their tentacles, but no global government was in place to regulate them. So they went bonanza! What does this have to do with big data? Keep reading.

  • Reason no.1 mentioned consent not being really consent and a law having to be put in place in the EU, after 21 years, to make consent an "informed" agreement. Huge amounts of data have been harnessed as a result of this delay.

  • Trump won and his digital campaign was executed by Cambridge Analytica, a company who puts together pretty much all info there is out there about users and craft political messages accordingly. A global partnership between data banks enabled Cambridge Analytica to gather huge amounts of information on each targeted voter, add to this an evaluation of the voter personality type and finally personalize Trump's message for that particular case. If you're late on the party, here's your late-arrival ticket. I wrote another easy-peasy article about it.

Dolphins vs Cats

The connection between the two is that Big Data has become the perfect tool for political campaigns. A populist tool, one could say. The efficiency and effectiveness of this tool is increased by the fact that it redefines "populism".

The term "populist" is usually referred to as a logic that aims at solving the exploitation of the "excluded". In the past, the "excluded" were the "the poor", "the unemployed", those who turned against an establishment run by elites. In this context, it was quite easy to map out what needs of "the people" had to be included in the political speech in order for the politician to attract the masses on his/her side.
The new type of populism enabled by Big Data aims at making anyone identify with "the excluded", regardless of their social class -it doesn't matter whether lower, middle or higher. By knowing what the preferences of each online user user, the politicians integrate this preference into their political speech and create appropriate meaning. If one loves dolphins, BigData will know, and it will use this information to sell them a song about dolphin love, a dolphin carpet or a dolphin - loving presidential candidate. If we're talking cats, then replace the word "dolphin" with "cats" in the last sentence and you get a personalized online experience. Imagine what happens when liking cats and dolphins turns into supporting gun rights, LGBTQ rights, Women rights or hating Jews, Arabs or pension-cuts. All of these political preferences are used to lure you, the reader, into a politician's campaign. He/she only embraces these issues because they know that the audience cares for them, not because they actually care or have solutions to solve them. This is how empty signifiers are created.

To better understand the Cats vs Dolphins "piece of art" I did above, check Wall Street Journal's fun game on how a Liberal and a Conservative Facebook Timeline differed in content during the US Presidential campaign.

Big Data - best tool for public opinion manipulation

What you saw above is called an "opinion bubble". Once in there, everyone thinks they're on the right side of history. Which is not particularly wrong, maybe they are. Online activism has had great results with the mobilization of the masses. But news on platforms such as Facebook always reinforce existing opinions, good..or bad. It didn't take long until this phenomenon turned into a tool for public opinion manipulation.

You'll tell me this what politicians always did in their campaigns. And you'd be right. But the methods today have a much greater precision and rate of success than the old newspaper of TV. The reason? In the past, political campaigns were based on guessing. There was one message for all and strategists did not receive constant feedback on how audiences react to their message. Political campaigners did not have so much information on how audiences look like therefore they could not attract voters so easy. Now, political messages look like on the TV from my "piece of art." The biggest difference is that in the past, politicians had the same message for all. Now, the messages one politician sends are different according to the audience he/she speaks to. That's why, for example, politicians often seem to contradict themselves.

Today we have Trump winning with a strategy of testing 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. , according to an interview with Cambridge Analytica's CEO.

Big Data helps politicians to obtain data on their audiences, orchestrate behaviour and create opinion bubbles. I will discuss the effects of these opinion bubbles in a future article. So far, what you need to remember is that your vote is well, not really your vote. They know what to say to please you because they know everything about you while you only know what they want you to known about them.


Concluding, folks...

The time is now. It doesn't matter you're not a techie. That's not an excuse. Big Data industry is reshaping reality. Whether you want it or not, you have to have your saying, for the sake of a world free from alternative facts. So far, businesses have not been very transparent and informative on users' digital rights. Collected data can be used during political campaigns and drastically influence their result. There are no comprehensive guides for non-techies regarding the laws in EU concerning digital privacy and security. These are all reasons to think twice before installing an app, reading your news on Facebook or skipping that article on GDPR 'cause of its length. I will end this article with a call for action.

It is time to demand:
  • informative campaigns on our digital rights
  • business accountability and transparency
  • a separation between commercial and political uses of collected data
  • respect for users' data

Cheerios & See you soon!


Photo Credits:

Cat by joshuascottphotos (2008) https://www.flickr.com/photos/kowaleski/2243532184/
Headphones by JAL71(1998) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrjameslewis/2300837528/
Cat by NathanF (2008) https://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanf/2314676429/
Dolphin by nakhon100 (2008) https://www.flickr.com/photos/8058098@N07/2718571627/
LG LED LCD TV (SL9000) by LGEPR (2009) https://www.flickr.com/photos/lge/3883498363/
Cat by HeyDanielle (2010) https://www.flickr.com/photos/heydanielle/5224836147/
Dolphin by www.metaphoricalplatypus.com (2011) https://www.flickr.com/photos/29638108@N06/5230441013/
Dolphin by ross_hawkes (2004) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosshawkes/5526978573/
Dolphin 2of3 by tolomea (2011) https://www.flickr.com/photos/tolomea/7112027921/
Harvest Townhomes - Living Room by Polygon Homes (2012) https://www.flickr.com/photos/polygonhomes/8723786735/
Stripes Design Cowhide Patchwork Rug by ShineRugs (2015) https://www.flickr.com/photos/shinerugs/16461924286/
Silhouettes by www.freepik.com
Sad party mammal by Sara Kaplan (2004) https://www.flickr.com/photos/megcasablancas/2211044132/