September 1, 2013

Surveillance Society – Big Data Is The New Currency

The Authorities And Their Data Collection

Edward Snowden, NSA, Prism, GCHQ are now in the mind of many. Especially in Europe politicians are playing the innocent and they are hypocritically claiming to be shocked about the activities of the US and the UK government and that of course they are not involved whatsoever. However, there is obvious evidence that they contributed to the gathering of information and used those (at least partly) but they didn’t definitely do anything to avoid the collection of data — on the contrary. Big Data is a fact, used by authorities and (!) the industry and I do not see a way back or how to escape.

Since 9/11 the US government has pretended to have good arguments and a cause about the need of this data collection, but I dare to say that it would have happened in any case, only for reason that the technology exists and all governments having an interest in knowing what is going on in their society and to control much, one way or the other. By nature secret services have no interest to explain what they are doing.

Interestingly enough the average bourgeois does not seem to care too much. The smartest complainers and analysts are writing their reflections and comments in classical media — but they do know that their word will be spread by users pointing to their content via social media (Facebook.com, twitter.com, etc.). Welcome to the modern world.

The United States has not yet digested the attacks of 9/11, and if we are realistic we are facing a similar uncomfortable situation in Europe. In Europe we believe being less ‘paranoid’ than the US, but we are thankful for every assassination to attempt the authorities defeated. Whatever tragedy happened in the last decade, we are first asking ourselves if terrorists were the initiators. However, it is rather unlikely to kill yourself during a terrorist attack. The governments are playing it as always by making the people afraid, but Conor Friedersdorf hits the top of the nail with his article “The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror“. You just cannot explain everything by the tragedy of 9/11.

In the old days we lived in a world that had walls, and those walls had to be guarded and this came at a price, nothing really changed. Well, wait! Are those walls still the same than a decade ago? They truly are not. We are living in a global world, we are doing business in a global word, we are having friends and enemies in a global world, and we have democracies from the old world, trying to survive in this global context but getting every year less control, especially less control over their own destiny.

It’s probably a crime that we do not know what the authorities are collecting from our physical ego and our digital alter ego. However, we should avoid believing that the collection of data is solely limited to our digital footprint. From motor way toll systems, to recorded eye movements in retail stores, number plate recognition, face recognition and movement profiling, most of our public activities are becomingly tracked these days, and they are being  tracked from the authorities as much as from the industry.

Edward Snowden just pointed us again to facts well known now for years — nothing new here. The Wallstreet Journal is a good source, reporting a well-researched fact sheet for years. The Suveillance Catalog is one of many examples and roughly three years old.

The Private Industry And Their Data Collection

Despite the activities of NSA and despite all social media, we are already living in a monitored and supervised world. Let’s face it, London has for over a decade far more than 1 million (!) CCTV. There are controversial discussions about the effectiveness of the measure (One crime solved for every 1000 CCTV cameras senior officer claims), but is not each crime already solved an improvement? Even in Germany, with the strong data protection law, CCTV is getting increasingly popular and they are increasingly used in public places and retail stores. A lot of private households are installing CCTVs almost everywhere and often they are sending those data (including pictures of public areas) to cloud services on the public network, again under the control of the authorities and private companies.

NSA might collect all our digital data, but this is nothing very new, as they are not the only one doing so. You cannot board or leave the UK at Heathrow without your face being scanned (Heathrow deploys face recognition scanners). Eye tracking is being used more and more commonly in Retail Stores (including Germany) to analyse point of interests (Why it works: PRS eye tracking and packaging design helps brands win at retail).

Pathintelligence is offering retailers to scan, and track anonymously visitors’ behavior through the mobile gadgets they are carrying with them. You want to see what those detecting devices look like? Watch this (they are just a fact):

For the German followers claiming that this is not allowed in good old Germany look at the following article from 2010. Firstly anonymized movement profiles and eye-tracking approaches are already today a fact and as the article is showing, even without mobile devices, tracking is becoming used through simpler technologies like analyzing where you are using your debit card.

An Example of Publicly Available Data In Arizona

Below I will give an example of publicly available data in the United States. I am not judging if these data are adding security to our private lives or if they are worth giving up privacy, but these examples are showing that these data are available even without the collecting activities of NSA or any other secret service, and as the technology is available and involving,  it’s highly probable that such information will eventually be available outside the USA.

Sex Offender InfoCenter:

Have you thought of buying a new house? You want to see if there are any sex offenders living in your neighbourhood? Try the page of the Arizona Department of Public Safety for instance (try ZIP code 85308).

An Insight Into Property Owners:

Have you thought of buying a new house? But not completely convinced yet? Would it be good to have more information about the current owner, mortgage documents, etc.? Here we go. Click on the following link to see a list of all residential property owners in Maricopa County in Arizona (with the family name MILLER). Click on “Deed” to get an insight into the legal documents like the mortgage document. As potential buyer, you are probably more interested into your future neighbours, click on “subdivisions” to get these insights. A click on “details” will give interesting information to you about the property, for instance the number of bathroom fixtures.

What Does My Neighbourhood Look Like?

Before buying or renting a new property, you might be interested to get more information about:

  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Income
  • Housing and Families
  • Education

Easy, just click on the following project “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block“. Based on the census data of 2010, you are getting insights of a lot of attributes of your future neighbourhood.

Conclusion

All above data are as well recorded outside the US, they might not be published publicly, as forbidden by local law. This doesn’t mean though that they are not stored digitally. It does not protect you against any companies or authorities investigating into those data and creating new insights based on them and most probably doing business with them.

It does not matter if you have an active digital life or not, one way or the other your data are being collected, and what has once been collected will hardly ever get deleted. I believe it’s funny to see people deleting content on Facebook.com and others portals, apparently believing it will indeed be deleted instead of just getting flagged not to show up on one’s profile – it’s still saved in the database (at least the metadata), altogether with the information when you decided to “drop” the content. Perhaps one of your friends downloaded your post a second before you delete it. Perhaps it has already been forwarded through other channels, perhaps through channels and to people you do not trust.

As smart people we are ensuring not to post any confidential data, but is this not already the starting point of reducing our right of freedom of opinion. Why are we so suspicious? It is the fear inside us not knowing what can potentially happen to our data.

All our data are being collected for years now. There is no way out of this. Even without having a digital footprint and using mobile devices, the usage of credit cards, debit cards, fuel cards, fidelity cards, health system cards and prescriptions, tax declarations, etc., are profiling a person. Credit card companies are making more money out of profiling their customers than by the sole usage of their credit functionality. Even if you do not use any credit cards, getting cash from your ATM or at your local bank are data with the power to profile you and every bank as an installed CCTV system.

One might be reminded of 1984  (George Orwell) or even Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), but is there really no way out of the dilemma?

I do not think so. The technology is there, almost everything is being recorded digitally and we have to become used to these facts. We have to make the best out of it for our private life and we have to vote for the right parties to make sure we will know what is happening on our data.

There is not much we can do about it. Data is already today the new currency, and this cannot be stopped but it will certainly have a dramatic impact on our social lives, including all parties and existing democracies. As much as our business and private lives are changing, the way we are running countries and politics will eventually change as well. What is the purpose of silos on country or regional level, if we all are acting globally. How can you act globally, as long as you have different laws in place depending on the country you are living in?

I believe the biggest crime is not having any transparency on whom is using our data and what business someone is running on top of it. This said, I have nothing to hide. I do not care what the authorities or companies are storing about me, but I feel uncomfortable not knowing what is happening behind my back. In this context retail stores using movement profiles and eye-tracking analysis to optimize their earnings and my shopping experience is nothing bad at all. Why are they hiding their used methods? Why are they not transparently saying what is going on in their stores? Openness and transparency are a necessity for trust. This simple rule applies to the private and the public sector.

If there is one thing Edward Snowden did achieve than conjuring up that today we can’t trust neither companies nor authorities. Our data are being used, hopefully for the good! Again, some of my life comfort is depending on the collection of my data. We should see it as progress. Progress always has pros and cons, the fact of data collection will not disappear, we have to find ways to show transparency what is happening on our data.

In this context I do not generally suspect the global authorities to misuse my private data. There are a rare cases where authorities made the wrong conclusion based on the collected meta data, but again I believe there are more benefits than negative impact today, but progress does not stop here. What will be next? Which government will allow to get merged with others into a more global role? Will not every government continue to fight to get full control to make sure they will survive?

Before I will close, watch the following movie. Gus Hunt, the CTO of the CIA speaking at the AWS Gov Summit 2011, and being excited about all the features and ring and bells big data is offering to his business. Again, this was published before Snowden, nothing new and nothing we could not have known about before.

A police state is based on mistrust, we need to get trust back, trust into the ownership of our data and trust into our politicians, this only will work with an open discussion what is being collected and used by whom. The wrong usage of the collected data can easily lead to a police state. Not knowing who is collecting what kind of information was the mistrust in all communist states in the last century.

What are your thoughts on big data and the use of your private data? Do you think it can ever be stopped? If not what are your predictions how it will change our political systems and society? I am convinced it will.

Jeannot Muller

Entrepreneur, developer, author.

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