An Open Letter to Congress:
Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a technology journalist who specializes in data issues. In my 10-plus years of covering technology, I’ve written about security, data, cutting-edge tech and mobile devices — like your phone.
Occasionally, there’s a major development in technology, so major that even the experts wonder: Yes, we can do this — but should we?
Analysts, tech journalists and even vendors will write about, discuss and deeply ponder this question, but in the final analysis, there’s really no one organization in charge of setting parameters on what happens next. Technologists can foresee the problems, but in the end, they’re ill-equipped to address the larger ethical ramifications of what they create. Motivated by competition, profit and the (probably correct) assumption that if they don’t do it, someone else will, technologists and technology companies proceed without any real conviction to control what they create.
This is further complicated by the fact that our political institutions have not adapted to keep pace with the rate of innovation. Public understanding about technology lags behind what’s actually possible in the sector. For instance, cybersecurity experts were warning that an orchestrated cyber attack on our utilities and computer systems could be devastating for years before anyone in Washington really started to discuss the issue.
Even now, while Washington debates finances and health care, technologists are grappling with an innovation that may revolutionize both those areas, while creating a massive threat to privacy and raising serious ethical questions about how we’ll use that technology.
I’m talking about Big Data.
I’ll grant you, Big Data sounds pretty benign, and it’s actually being used for a lot of great things. Some believe it will even help cure cancer, since researchers will be able to analyze larger data sets collected over the years by cancer studies. But just like any technology, Big Data can be used for bad or good.
What makes this a pressing issue is it’s becoming more accessible and cheap, making it easy to take large amounts of information — some of which is actually freely available through government agencies — and figure out things we’ve never been able to figure out before without great expense and brain power.
Already, President Obama signed off on $200 million in Big Data technology investments that include work on the next generation of military intelligence. The goal? To create “truly autonomous war robots capable of making their own decisions on tomorrow’s battlefields,” reports Innovation News Daily. If you think drones are scary, think about the potential consequences for humankind if one or two countries can wage war without any sacrifice at all.
Some really smart people who understand Big Data technologies are raising the red flag about its use, and I think it’s time someone brought it to your attention.
One of those really smart people — a database administrator who has worked for companies like Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, Boeing, Intel and Honeywell — is Philip Wik:
Vast databases that talk to other vast databases could erode our sphere of privacy to the point that privacy will cease to exist, even for those who believe that they are off the grid. Because of the ubiquity of sensors and cameras, the grid is our existence itself. The fact is that Big Data can concentrate and channel power in ways that we do not yet fully understand. It is one thing to track guns, but what about thoughts? Totalitarianism is perhaps less likely than the Brave New World consensus that safety, solidarity, serenity, and distraction are paramount and that privacy and individuality are superfluous.
This is why Wik and others say we must start to talk about the ethics of Big Data and whether we should place limits on its reaches.
To help jump-start the conversation, here’s a list of questions Wik says we should be asking about Big Data:
- Can we clearly define the purpose of the collection of Big Data as a public function?
- In what ways and to whom are those who collect Big Data accountable?
- What is the impact of the use of Big Data in terms of balancing our rights and state interests?
- Would safeguards against using Big Data damage our rights or state interests?
- Are informed citizens and public servants sufficient to ensure the moral architecture of Big Data?
Of course, this isn’t just an exercise in ethics. Government agencies and businesses will need to understand the limits of Big Data as well. For instance, Big Data relies on algorithms, or mathematical calculations, for determining results, but experts warn it’s possible these can be used to create bias outcomes.
The time to act is now. Consultant and ZDNet blogger Joe McKendrick recently pointed out that Big Data capabilities will soon be accessible as an online service — like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
“Again, the question is, is everybody ready for this?” asks McKendrick.
It’s not just a question for technologists; it’s a question for all of us.