Tag Archives: google

The Dystopian Future of Big Data

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

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.

The government’s playing with my privacy; so what do I do?

It seems as if this dystopian nightmare forced upon us will never end. Everyday seems to bring up a new story of some random government spying on us. Starting with the US spying on the world to Britain possessing a system worse than the US all the way down to India building the capability to crunch through the mountains of data produced by its citizens, it’s amply clear that our data is not safe in the hands of those we trust to safeguard it. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft; no wait, especially Microsoft have confessed to helping the government to our data. While Google and Facebook are still trying to do justice to their customers, Microsoft has been going beyond the call of duty at the behest of government agencies and providing them with information about bugs in its software which have not been patched in order to help them tap computers halfway around the world.

How does it affect you?

In all honesty? It doesn’t. Most of us aren’t journalists who need to keep our sources confident or Jihadis planning high-profile attacks on US towers of commerce. We’re mostly ordinary people who use our mail for the bare minimum. We receive newsletters, spam, a long mail from a girlfriend far away, a few photos… Nothing of consequence. (If you do use a Gmail account for sensitive mails, then you really need to get your head examined. Google states that it reads your mails in its terms of service.)

bigbrotherSocial networks are in the same ballpark. The photos we upload on Facebook are the ones we want our friends to see. Or rather, that’s the logic behind it. But honestly, how many of us would call all our Facebook friends close friends? We have a few hundred (if not a few thousand) friends on Facebook and it would be folly to claim that we know each of them equally well. It would be greater folly to say that showing my holiday pictures to that girl I met in a country far far away in a small conference (who I’ve never spoken to since) is any different from showing them to a stranger. Most of our Facebook friends are virtual strangers to us. We breeze past their status updates without caring about their contents.

Twitter is said to be the company most protective of its users’ data. That’s quite ironic, because none of your data on Twitter is private, except perhaps your password. However, I doubt most people have any problems with their government reading their tweets.

Let’s face it. The data we put on Facebook and Twitter can’t be helped. Those two companies could secretly be helping the slave trade and we wouldn’t leave them. We’re bound to each other now.

However, mail is a different story. I like to believe that my email account is for my own eyes only. No matter how trivial my mails, I still like the feeling of having a private mailbox and knowing that if I write something as embarrassing as a love letter, then the only people who will read that mail will be myself and the lady I intend it for. If Google wants to read it and send us ads based on my writings, I sigh and grumble to myself, but it’s okay. Google’s providing me that service for free, I guess I do owe them that advertising money. I’ve made my peace with it, knowing that every service rendered has a price.

However, my government, on the other hand, is a whole new ballgame.

Courtesy Aprill Brandon
Courtesy Aprill Brandon
  1. I pay my taxes
  2. They rule in my name (as well as that of a billion other Indians)
  3. They are the protectors of my rights
  4. Manmohan Singh isn’t man enough to read my writings. Rahul Gandhi even less so.

I pay the government its dues. I expect it to be able to protect me without reading my private correspondence.

Patching your holes

There’s not many ways in which you can protect yourself from the government’s snoopers. However, the one you should be teaching the next generation is to:

Learn programming and not be afraid of the shell and ssh, for they are your best friends in this brave new world.

This one piece of advice shall save your inbox from many. While we all depend on Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, it would be much more expedient to simply remove the middleman from the equation, rent some server space, install CentOS (or Arch if you’re feeling extremely lucky), install OwnCloud and a mail server, purchase a domain and point it towards your own new mail server! This seems like a good place to do a PhD in the art. I’d suggest a simpler guide, but unfortunately it seems that all roads lead to this one. While it may seem a very big deal and pretty hard, for any privacy freak out there, it’s amazingly good. Once you have your own email server set up, you can encrypt your email to deny people from reading it. It’s also a good idea to understand the concepts behind PGP and GPG.

If at any time, you feel that this is too much, remember this quote by Ben Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

I just got Google Drive. In fact, I received the email verification around an hour ago. I’ll be comparing it to DropBox, of which I’m a regular user, and write a piece tomorrow or day after. One thing which already puts me off is the lack of native apps for iOS devices and Linux. Hopefully they’ll fill these holes soon.