Big data: A wizard’s tool

Big data: A wizard’s tool
Big data: A wizard’s toolProthom Alo Illustration

Suppose you read a very interesting book and searched about the author and books that have a similar same flavour. Or you were just texting about the book to a friend. Then all on a sudden, you discover some advertisers on your social media homepage from some online bookshop about giving away some of the books at a lower rate that you searched earlier. We all have found ourselves in this kind of situations from time to time. What did you think about that at that very particular moment? Coincidence? If you thought so, then you should know how big data analytics are shaping the future of business and industries and how this may affect individual privacy as new information about both private and state-sponsored surveillance are coming to light recently.

Liking “Science”, “Thunderstorm” and “Curly Fries” is sign of high intelligence. Someone who likes “Hello Kitty” is more likely to be high on ‘openness’, have democratic political views and is most likely to be of Afro-American origin, predominantly Christian. If this tiny bit of data can reveal this much information about someone, then think about the tons of other data that we are producing each day. Then those data gets used.

Defining big data, Gartner said, “Big data is data that contains greater variety arriving in increasing volumes and with ever-higher velocity.” Let’s think about your smartphone and how much data you create. With every phone call you make, every text you sent, every click on YouTube, Netflix, Amazon you are creating data. With 7.5 billion people existing, lots of data is created every moment. Pretty much by existing we are creating data so much that we call it big data.

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Let’s discuss about one aspect of it: Facebook likes. In 2013, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published a study where 58,500 Facebook users took a personality survey.They requested permission to view the users’ likes. They found that the users’ personality and individual traits and attributes can be predicted based on their Facebook likes. Liking “Science”, “Thunderstorm” and “Curly Fries” is sign of high intelligence. Someone who likes “Hello Kitty” is more likely to be high on ‘openness’, have democratic political views and is most likely to be of Afro-American origin, predominantly Christian. If this tiny bit of data can reveal this much information about someone, then think about the tons of other data that we are producing each day. Then those data gets used.

Facebook itself categorises people into different groups. Categories like this allow advertisers on Facebook to select very specific criteria and send ads to the exact group of people that they targeted. Like the Bloomberg analysis of 2016 shows us that, the Trump presidential campaign chose a particular group of Hillary Clinton supporters to see anti-Clinton ads on Facebook trying to make them less likely to vote for Clinton. There’s a big chance that big data benefitted you in some way. Perhaps you saved some money by using discount coupons that were tailored to you by analysing your shopping habits.

However, this technology comes with some serious security concerns. Stealing data from the websites and third-party interventions raises questions about individual privacy on the internet. The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us 87 million Facebook users’ personal data getting stolen resulted in congressional hearing. Facebook gave the permission to analyse users’ personal information and data to the political consulting firm for “academic purposes” though they were predominantly used for political advertisement.

Do you remember when we said that things that you mention in your private text can bring ads related to those things in your homepage? In late 2018, the New York Times reported that internal Facebook records describe data sharing deals that benefited more than 150 companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify and others. As per the record, Facebook allowed Microsoft’s search engine Bing to look at users’ friends without their consent. Netflix and Spotify were given the authority to read users’ private texts.

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In 2013, former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden disclosed classified documents on how the US security agencies were collecting user data from companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Apple and others through a secret surveillance program called US-984XN, also known as the PRISM.The Protect America Act 2007 allows the NSA and the FBI to collect data on foreigners but doesn’t require specific targets or regions to be named. The UK government also started to take part in this programme and receive users’ data since 2010. The leaked documents showed that PRISM had more than 100000 records as active surveillance targets that include real time monitoring of contents and metadata. This data espionage program leading by the US government disclosed one fact that new data analysing technologies like the big data analytics made it possible to operate surveillance on mass people instead of a targeted surveillance that causes heavy toll on individual privacy.

In China, however, the surveillance took a different path than the US. China started mass surveillance programmes to make sure people’s allegiance to the CCP and the state remains intact. China started a new social credit system that rates the trustworthiness of its citizens by analyzing fiscal and government data also with the help of camera surveillance. “By using big data algorithm Chinese officials can draw this capacity to anticipate protests and even major surges in online public opinion, enabling them to act preemptively to quash opposition”, says Xiao Qiang on his article ‘President XI’s Surveillance State’ published in the Journal of the Democracy, volume 30. Technological Giant Tencent monitors every conversation in the WeChat, a Chinese texting app, groups and stores those conversations for at least 6 months. Moreover, they can retrieve any data from the conversations even if the participants delete them from the app.

In China, however, the surveillance took a different path than the US. China started mass surveillance programmes to make sure people’s allegiance to the CCP and the state remains intact. China started a new social credit system that rates the trustworthiness of its citizens by analyzing fiscal and government data also with the help of camera surveillance.

During COVID-19, we have seen the Chinese authority to use the big data analytics technology to fight the pandemic. By using the AI surveillance camera as well as healthcare database and public transport database, authority can easily track down the places where the patient went before testing positive and who possibly could get affected by the virus.

Democratic countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Israel also used big data to fight the coronavirus. Israel has approved the permission for its security agencies to track the mobile data of the corona positive citizens. This move was criticised by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel which they called “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope.” Taiwan has also developed its own surveillance system after the SARS outbreak in 2003. The country has integrated its health insurance database with its immigration and customs database. The authority took control on travel ticket scan, classifying risky behaviors from the passengers and travel history in order to make immigration and custom database useful. And by using this real time data analysis technology, Taiwan is tracking 55000 people living in home quarantine. South Korea’s tracking strategy heavily relies on digital infrastructures.South Korean authority has massive amount of collected transaction data for investigating tax fraud. Authorities access a wide range of data- location history, credit card information, travel records, CCTV footage of the corona positive patients and so on. In March, the Korean government launched a centralized data collection platform that made possible to track down a patient under 10 minutes.

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Looking at Bangladesh, we don’t yet see big data analysis and usage, even during this COVID-19 pandemic, when many countries of the world are relying on big data to tackle the situation. But the basic layout is there, where massive production of data is seen every day with 3.5% of our huge population using internet. Besides, the government has initiated smart NID, biometric SIM card which contains all the basic information. Still, the lack of a proper national structure to analyze this huge data is holding us back. Not from only these, we see data generating at many sectors, such as in banking- rates and types of transactions; in SIM companies- people of different age and region taking up different internet, talk-time or SMS offers; in business- fashion trends and choices of different people while buying any products, collection and proper analysis of this big data can lead into emergence of new ways of approaching a more efficient business sector. But hopefully, the government can also use this big data analysis to create new citizen friendly policies ensuring health, security and economic stability for all.

It is safe to say that democracy is and will be facing serious challenges. When the pandemic is over, people will find themselves in a global recession, a new election season, furthermore social movements will recur. What measures governments around the world are going to take? Will they continue with these health surveillance programs in the name of preventing further outbreaks of epidemic? What impact would this new surveillance tools have on new era of public demonstration, marches and strikes?

It is said that democracies make major changes when confronted with major crisis. It is safe to say that democracy is and will be facing serious challenges. When the pandemic is over, people will find themselves in a global recession, a new election season, furthermore social movements will recur. What measures governments around the world are going to take? Will they continue with these health surveillance programs in the name of preventing further outbreaks of epidemic? What impact would this new surveillance tools have on new era of public demonstration, marches and strikes?

We have already witnessed big data analytics’ role on counter-terrorism surveillance. We have also witnessed of its implementation in states like China, Vietnam, Thailand and others in quashing social movements. So it’s easy to say that post pandemic government policies of domestic surveillance in the liberal democratic and the eastern democratic countries will pave the future of new generation’s data collecting system and surveillance programmes.

*The writers are students of the development studies department, University of Dhaka