Being a nineties geek, I grew up with the Matrix and Skynet. From there on, I moved to Asimov, HG Wells, Clarke, etc. Sci-fi and fantasy drew me in as surely as a flame does a moth. They talk about dystopias, these authors. Worlds where Ragnarok is about to happen, or has already happened. They talk about times when machines overwhelm humans, or times when the human civilization loses coherence due to any number of factors. Even today, games like Mass Effect strive to keep stories about impending doom alive. With enemies like the Reapers and Skynet coming, humanity needs to prepare as well as it can, right?
Well, maybe we should stop and think about where we’re going first.
Today, an increasing amount of data created by humans is indexed by bots and stored online. We create documents in GDrive/Office 360, send our mail over Outlook.com/Gmail, blog on WordPress/Tumblr, and tweet and post indiscriminately. Few of us think about what we’re doing. And even fewer think about the consequences of this concentration of data.
I talked to a friend of mine about the demerits of actually using Google services. I was arguing against Google, and he was arguing for. He had many points in his favour (efficiency, awesome interface, seamless integration, etc.) while I had just one. Google collects my data.
“And so what?” he replied. “Number one, you have nothing worth collecting anyway, and number two, the only thing they do with that data is advertise according to what they find out.”
I stared at him, almost aghast at his open face which reflected none of my own disgust at this situation. Think about it. Someone’s looking into the conversations you’re having with your girlfriend, those little virtual kisses you share and keeping track. That same someone is also reading your conversation with your best friend when you ask him or her about life, the universe and everything. Your deepest and darkest secrets, which were once the solely known to the intended recipient and the paper it was delivered on have bots and spiders crawling all over them.
Upon making this argument to him, his reply was, “But they’re just bots. No humans look at this info.”
And he’s right. No one person, or even a thousand person company has the time to look at all those billions of conversations taking place on Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger and actually decipher them. But they don’t need to either.
Big Data is the newest buzzword on the block. Wait. Actually, that’s not true. Big Data has been a fad ever since the internet entered its teens. And now that it’s in its tweens, Big Data has begun assuming even more significance.
For the ones living under a rock, Big Data is simply those terabyte-sized chunks of data Facebook generates every minute in messaging volume. Algorithms designed to decipher them fall are selling like hot cakes now. And that’s where the problem comes in. If someone with access to these databases wants to know about you, he doesn’t need to trawl through all your years of Facebook conversations. With the right algorithms analysing that data, he can easily get out whatever information he wants with the click of a button (or the right shell script).
Think about it. Your documents, your music, your videos, your conversations, everything is online. The NSA has already demonstrated that it has the capability to look at this data through any number of back doors. It was alleged that the NSA had compromised the RSA algorithm during the key-generation process. and with the power of Big Data, the NSA doesn’t need to trawl through your conversations to know about you. It simply has its algorithms do that for it.
The future of Big Data
If you think that isn’t such a big deal, you’re living an ostrich’s life. In the upcoming Apple event in September, Apple’s rumoured to be releasing a wearable. Most probably a watch. Google has already built prototypes of Google Glass and is deploying them in the real world. Samsung, LG, etc are building their own category of smart-watches. And this doesn’t even count things like Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband etc.
All these devices track you in some form or the other and store that data online. Whether it’s the number of steps you walked that day, or your heartbeat, your pulse or even the calories you consumed. All that data goes online and is stored on a server where it’s being indexed and analysed.
How does that affect us apart from advertising?
Well, the one place where this data would be extremely valuable is insurance. Insurance is one hell of a data-intensive industry. The more data they have about you, the more accurately they can judge how to screw you over when it comes to premiums. Minor health problems may be overblown, tiny things about you which might actually make no difference to your case might be taken into account while drafting your policy etc.
And it might not really stop here. The government hasn’t exactly shown consideration about user data as of yet. One of the things it might decide to do is to incentivise being healthy by allowing tax benefits to people who show a certain amount of exercise/calorie intake etc.
It might start from here. And it might go somewhere else entirely. Sure, it might be difficult to get this one passed, for there are great arguments for both sides. However, incentivising a healthy population might just win out over freedom of choice, especially in countries where obesity is rising alarmingly. And from there, it’ll become easier and easier to pass laws which convert a welfare state into a nanny state, and finally a police state.
The state might want to track people, for people joining terrorist groups is a national security concern. But once tracking starts for a few, extending that net to cover everyone becomes much easier. And once the internet of things becomes a reality, the state will finally know as much about you as you yourself do, if not more. Today, people are protesting against Israel by refusing to buy kosher goods. Tomorrow, your fridge might log the absence of kosher goods, and the bot reading these logs might flag you as an anti-Israel sympathiser. The anonymity we enjoy today might become a thing of the past as the state slowly extends its feelers onto us.
European police are already advocating that European cars have systems which will allow the police to remotely stop your car in case they need to, a system which will detect the speed limit of the smart road you’re driving on and not allow you to drive faster than that, a GPS tracker, etc. This all might seem great at first, but it has many problems. For law-abiding citizens under a benevolent government, these systems equate to convenience. But if this government changes to one not as inclined to benevolence for some reason or the other, these very same rules will give the state an overwhelming advantage over ordinary citizens. Cars being used in protests might be tracked and remotely stopped, their occupants trapped inside until arrest. In countries such as India, where a politician’s convoy makes regular traffic stop, this privilege might be abused by anyone with a shred of power.
It sounds dystopian and pessimistic. It should, for the future I’m suggesting is bleak. The founding fathers of the United States included a provision for self-defence, in order for the population to keep the government in check. However, the founding fathers, who existed before Asimov or the steam engine, could simply not have realised that the next great war would be fought with not guns and tanks, but with information and crunching capacity.