What have Big Data, the Internet of Things and Civil Rights have to do with each other?

| June 11, 2014

Where is the connection between the collection of digital data and the civil rights movement? Malcolm Crompton explains and urges us to consider the implications.

A friend of mine has just drawn my attention to a civil rights project in England called Journey to Justice which started me thinking.

There is an important linkage between the broader civil rights movement and the impact on us with the current explosion of digital data being collected and created about us all.

Why? Let’s start at the beginning. Much of the policy debate about data privacy has traditionally been about directly COLLECTED data, when the individual knows the collection is happening. More recently we have begun to realise the scale of the data OBSERVED about us: e.g. where we are, when we are on the phone, to whom, what we are searching for etc. Then there is the third: INFERRED data, ie conclusions about us from the COLLECTED and the OBSERVED e.g. the well known story about Target in the US inferring when woman are pregnant through changes in very ordinary shopping patterns (and soon, the INFERRED from the INFERRED). See the World Economic Forum papers for more.

And the linkage to civil rights? Most directly, see “Big Retail Is Watching You: Exposing Walmart’s Massive Data Collection Schemes” where application of Big Data appears to be resulting in discrimination against people of colour in another large US retail chain.

More generally, see the excellent paper “Judged by the Tin Man: Individual Rights in the Age of Big Data” by Tene & Polonetsky. They “argue that the focus on the machine [especially Big Data] is a distraction from the debate surrounding data-driven ethical dilemmas, such as privacy, fairness and discrimination”.

Combine the capabilities of Big Data (and the huge mistakes they can potentially make) with the Internet of Things and maybe the perfect storm with huge implications for society is brewing, whether in the form of excessive surveillance by government authorities or by commerce of all shapes and sizes.

Think about what this means for you and for us all. And think about supporting initiatives like Journey to Justice.