Four political camps in the big data world
Last Friday I was honored to be part of a super interesting and provocative conference at UC Berkeley’s Law School called Open Data: Addressing Privacy, Security, and Civil Rights Challenges.
What I loved about this conference is that it explicitly set out to talk across boundaries of the data world. That’s unusual.
Broadly speaking, there are four camps in the “big data” world:
- The corporate big data camp. This involves the perspective that we use data to know our customers, make our products tailored to their wants and needs, generally speaking keep our data secret so as to maximize profits. The other side of this camp is the public, seen as consumers.
- The security crowd. These are people like Bruce Schneier, whose book I recently read. They worry about individual freedom and liberty, and how mass surveillance and dragnets are degrading our existence. I have a lot of sympathy for their view, although their focus is not mine. The other side of this camp is the NSA, on the one hand, and hackers, on the other, who exploit weak data and privacy protections.
- The open data crowd. The people involved with this movement are split into two groups. The first consists of activists like Aaron Swartz and Carl Malamud, whose basic goal is to make publicly available things that theoretically, and often by law, should be publicly available, like court proceedings and scientific research, and the Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on data about politics. The second group of “open data” folks come from government itself, and are constantly espousing the win-win-win aspects of opening up data: win for companies, who make more profit, win for citizens, who have access to more and better information, and win for government, which benefits from more informed citizenry and civic apps. The other side of this camp is often security folks, who point out how much personal information often leaks through the cracks of open data.
- Finally, the camp I’m in, which is either the “big data and civil rights” crowd, or more broadly the people who worry about how this avalanche of big data is affecting the daily lives of citizens, not only when we are targeted by the NSA or by someone stealing our credit cards, but when we are born poor versus rich, and so on. The other side of this camp is represented by the big data brokers who sell information and profiles about everyone in the country, and sometimes the open data folks who give out data about citizens that can be used against them.
The thing is, all of these camps have their various interests, and can make good arguments for them. Even more importantly, they each have their own definition of the risks, as well as the probability of those risks.
For example, I care about hackers and people unreasonably tracked and targeted by the NSA, but I don’t think about that nearly as much as I think about how easy it is for poor people to be targeted by scam operations when they google for “how do I get food stamps”. As another example, when I saw Carl Malamud talk the other day, he obviously puts some attention into having social security numbers of individuals protected when he opens up court records, but it’s not obvious that he cares as much about that issue as someone who is a real privacy advocate would.
Anyway, we didn’t come to many conclusions in one day, but it was great for us all to be in one room and start the difficult conversation. To be fair, the “corporate big data camp” was not represented in that room as far as I know, but that’s because they’re too busy lobbying for a continuation of little to no regulation in Washington.
And given that we all have different worries, we also have different suggestions for how to address those worries; there is no one ideal regulation that will fix everything, and for that matter some people involved don’t believe that government regulations can ever work, and that we need citizen involvement above all, especially when it comes to big data in politics. A mishmash, in other words, but still an important conversation to begin.
I’d like it to continue! I’d like to see some public debates between different representatives of these groups.