This Is Why Dictators Love Big Data


Bernard Marr, Contributor

February 8, 2016

Big data is all the rage right now. It’s a trendy buzzword, but more than that, it’s providing incredible opportunities to the companies and organisations that are putting forth the time and energy to make it work to solve complex problems.

Big data has the potential to do a lot of good in the world.  For example, India is undertaking a project to create accurate, detailed, and verifiable national records on every one of its 1.25 billion citizens, that will help the nation to improve services and systems for health, water, food, and other needs.

But that same data collection that could benefit and improve billions of lives could also be used for more nefarious purposes.

Unfortunately, big data is exactly the sort of tool that dictators and repressive governments have always wanted: the ability to know exactly what their citizens are doing, and even predict what they will do in the future.

Scary ways unscrupulous governments could use big data

Every rose has its thorns, as they say, and so for every beneficial use of big data that exists, there is the reverse, a frightening opportunity for an unscrupulous person, group, or government to use that data against us.

Take, for example, predictive policing.  In February 2014, the Chicago Police Department sent uniformed officers to make “custom notification” visits to individuals whom they had identified, using a computer generated list, as likely to commit a crime in the future. The police department wasn’t arresting people; rather, it was attempting to provide things like job training and placement services, drug rehab programs, counselling, and other services in order to prevent future crimes.

But it would be simple for another organization or government to use the same algorithms, the same techniques to simply round-up the most likely suspects of future crimes — or dissidents, or anti-government activists — and arrest or detain them.

Governments and government agencies can easily use the information every one of us makes public every day for social engineering — and even the cleverest among us is not totally immune.  Do you like cycling? Have children? A certain breed of dog? Volunteer for a particular cause? This information is public, and could be used to manipulate you into giving away more sensitive information.

It’s already happening

And, what is perhaps most frightening is that this isn’t speculation or fiction; this sort of manipulation of big data for a government’s benefit is already taking place.

In China, the government is rolling out a social credit score that aggregates not only a citizen’s financial worthiness, but also how patriotic he or she is, what they post on social media, and who they socialize with. If your “social credit” drops below a certain level because you post anti-government messages online or because you’re socially associated with other dissidents, you could be denied credit approval, financial opportunities, job promotions, and more.

But don’t think this is limited to places like China.  In the U.K., a sophisticated network of closed-circuit television cameras means that law enforcement and government agencies can track people and vehicles almost anywhere they go within a city.  Facial recognition software, gait recognition algorithms, license-plate cameras and more make finding a person or vehicle anywhere in the city a matter of time and computer power.

And in the U.S., the NSA is still collecting data from phone taps, meta-data from telephone companies, and almost certainly other information with an eye to preventing terrorist attacks.

In all of these cases, we have only the government’s own assurances that this data will be used for good and not evil purposes.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of all of this is the inability to opt-out.  In modern life, you might choose not to be on websites like Facebook that collect data. You might even be able to avoid using email or anonymize your search data and Internet use.

But the moment you visit a doctor, pick up a phone, buy a loaf of bread, or even check out a library book, you’ve created a data point somewhere. And from there, it’s unclear who has access to that data — legitimate or otherwise. And it’s impossible to know how any of that data will be used in the future.

If this is already happening in countries with democratically elected governments, just imagine what is – or could be – happening in dictatorships. Big data is one of those tools that you don’t want in the wrong hand. The problem is that we currently can’t prevent any government, elected or not, from using big data analytics for good or evil.

This article was written by Bernard Marr from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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