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The Risks of Big Data

There are three main risks of Big Data:

  • The paralysis of privacy
  • Punishment through propensity
  • Fetishization of and dictatorship through data

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Here I continue my summary of Mayer-Schonberger and Cuker (2017) Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight’.

Three Risks of Big Data 

Firstly, simply because so much data is collected on individuals – not only via state surveillance but also via Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter,it means that protecting privacy is more difficult -especially when so much of that data is sold on to be analysed for other purposes.

Secondly, there is the possibility of penalties based on propensities – the possibility of punishing people even before they have done anything wrong..

Finally, we have the possibility of a dictatorship of data – whereby information becomes an instrument of the powerful and a tool of repression.

Paralyzing Privacy

The value of big data lies in its reuse, quite possibly in ways that are have not been imagined at the time of collecting it. In terms of personal information, if we are to re-purpose people’s personal data than they cannot give informed consent in any meaningful sense of the phrase – because in order to so you need to know what data a company is collecting and what use they are going to put it to.

The only way big data can work is for companies to ask customers to agree to have their data collected ‘for any purpose’, which undermines the concept of informed consent.

There are still possible ways to protect privacy – for example opting out and anonymisation.

Opting out is simply where some individuals choose not to have their data collected – however, opting out can itself identify certain things about the users – for example, when certain people opted out of Google’s street view and their houses were blurred – they were still noticeable as people who had ‘opted out’ (and thus maybe had more valuable stuff to steal!)/

Anonymisation is where all personal identifiers are stripped from data – such as national insurance number, date of birth and so on, but here people can still be identified – when AOL released its data set of 20 million search queries from over 650K users in 2006, researchers were able to pick individual people out – simply by looking at the content of searches they could deduce that someone was single, female, lived in a certain areas, purchased certain things – then it’s just a matter of cross referencing to find the particular individual.

In 2006 Netflix released over 100 million rental records of half a million users – again anonymised, and again researchers managed to identify one specific Lesbian living in a conversative area by comparing the dates of movies rented with her entries onto the  IMD.

Big data, it appears, aids de-anonymisation because we collect more data and we combine more data.

Of course it’s not just private companies collecting data… it’s the government too, The U.S. collects an enormous amount of data – amounts that are unthinkably large – and today it is possible to tell a lot about people by looking at how they are connected to others.

Probability and Punishment

This section starts with a summary of the introductory scene of minority report…

We already see the seeds of this type of pre-crime control through big data:

Parole boards in more than half the states of the US use big data predictions to inform their parole decisions.

A growing number of precincts use ‘Predictive Policing’ – using big data analysis to select which streets to parole and which individuals to harass..

A research project called FAST – Future Attribute Screening Technology – tries to identify potential terrorists by monitoring people’s vital signs.

Cukier now outlines the argument for big-data profiling – mainly pointing out that we’ve taken steps to prevent future risks for years (e.g. seat-belts) and we’ve profiled for years with small data (insurance!) – the argument for big data profiling is that it allows us to be more granular than previously – we can make our profiling more individualised – thus there’s no reason to stop every Arab man under 30 with a one way ticket from boarding a plane, but if that man has done a-e also, then there is a reason.

However, there is a fundamental problem of punishing people based on big data – that is, it undermines the very foundations of justice – that of individual choice and responsibility – by disallowing people choice – big data predictions about parole re offending are accurate 75% of the time – which means that if we use the profiling 100% of the time we are wrongly punishing 1 in 4 people.

Dictatorship of Data

The problem with relying on data to inform policy decisions is that the underlying quality of data can be poor – it can be biased, mis-analysed or used misleadingly. It can also fail to capture what is actually supposed to measure!

Education is a good example of a sector which is governed by endless testing – which only measure a slither of intelligence – the ability to demonstrate knowledge (predetermined by a curriculum) and show analytical and evaluative skills as an individual, in written form, all under timed conditions.

Google, believe it or not, is an example of a company that in the past has been paralysed by data – in 2009 its top designer, Douglas Bowman, resigned because he had to prove whether a border should be 3,4, or 5 pixels wide, using data to back up his view. He argued that such a dictatorship by data stifled any sense of creativity.

The problem with the above, in Steve Jobs’ words: it isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want’.

In his book Seeing Like a State, the anthropologist James Scott documents the way in which governments make people’s lives a misery by fetishizing quantitative data:they use maps to reorganise communities rather than asking people on the ground for example.

The problem we face in the future is how to harness the utility of big data without becoming overly relying on its predictions.

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What is Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is the idea that less government interference in the free market is the central goal of politics.

Neoliberals believe in a ‘small government’ which limits itself to enhancing the economic freedoms of businesses and entrepreneurs. The state should limit itself to the protection of private property and basic law enforcement.

Neoliberalism is most closely associated with Thomas Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Milton Friedman.png

Neoliberals advocate three main policies to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society: privatization, deregulation and low taxation.

Some examples of Neoliberal Policies include:

  • Lowering taxes on income, especially high income earners. When Thatcher came to power in 1997 she reduced income tax on the very highest earners from 83% to 60%.
  • Lowering Corporation tax – The government reduced the main corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to just 21% in 2014.
  • Privatising public services – Privatisation began under the Thatcher government of 1979 and continues today (2017). Britain’s rail, energy and water industries all used to be run by the state, but now they are run by private companies. Education and Health services are also being ‘privatised by stealth’, as more and more aspects of these services are contracted out to and run by private sector companies.
  • Reducing the number of rules and regulations which constrain businesses: This involves national and local governments monitoring private businesses less: by reducing the number of ‘health and safety standards’ businesses need to conform to and doing fewer health and safety and environmental health inspections for example.
deregulation UK.jpg
The ‘Red Tape Challenge’ offers some good examples of deregulation…

Further Background on Neoliberal Thought 

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1950s as a reaction against ‘Keynesianism’ – the idea that nation states should play a significant role in managing free market capitalism through high taxation in order to provide public services such as unemployment benefit, free health care and education (‘the welfare state’).

Keynsianism itself was a development of the earlier doctrine of ‘Liberalism’ which believed that individual freedom was the central goal of politics. Obviously the question of what kind of society allows for the most or best freedom is open to debate, but by the 1950s a consensus had emerged that ‘liberty’ was best guaranteed if the state provided a high degree of regulation of the economy and investment in social welfare.

Neoliberals such as Friedman believed that this ‘Keynesian’ model of organising the economy was inefficient, one of the reasons being that it restricts the freedoms of successful economic actors to reinvest their money as they see fit, because the state takes it away from them through taxes and gives it to the less successful, which in turn can create a perverse situation in which society punishes success and rewards laziness.

Evaluations of Neoliberalism

Arguments for neoliberalism

  • What right does the state have to tax money earnt through individual effort, innovation and risk?
  • Neoliberals argue that the private sector run services more efficiently than the state sector.
  • The argument for deregulation is that red-tape stifles business.

There are many critical voices of neoliberalism, mainly from the left and from within the green movement. Some of the main criticisms can be summarised as follows:

  • Cutting taxes on the rich has resulted in greater inequality and a lower standard of public services, especially for the poor.
  • Privatisation of public services has resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the majority to the rich –
  • Deregulation has made society less safe and stable – critics blame deregulation of the finance sector for the 2007 financial crash and the deregulation of health and safety legislation as being linked to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Critical Points

It can be difficult to evaluate the impact of neoliberalism because the term is so broad, and there is actually quite a lot of disagreement over what it actually means.

Even if we just focus on the policy aspect of neoliberalism – and try to evaluate the impact of lowering taxation, privatisation and deregulation, you would almost certainly need to break these down and look evaluate the impact of each aspect separately, and maybe even subdivide each aspect further to evaluate properly.

Selected Sources used to write this post…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

http://www.fsmitha.com/h2/ch37-thatcher.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/29/short-history-of-privatisation

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/29/short-history-of-privatisation

http://www.slobodaiprosperitet.tv/en/node/847

https://fee.org/articles/what-is-neoliberalism-anyway/

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150326105407/https://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/themehome/rtc-results-2/