Big Data and the Myth of Privacy


Science fiction has a long history of social commentary. Whether it is an exploration of our fears concerning change or our understanding that control is slipping from us at an alarming rate, stories about mega-corporations or vast evil empires have long captured our imaginations.


As I continue to refine the research for my current work in progress, I have discovered a myriad of rabbit holes concerning privacy on the digital frontier and it is frightening but for a reason I didn't anticipate.


Numerous bills are working their way through our government with the idea of data security in mind, but it's the collection of seemingly insignificant bits of our daily lives that is a treasure trove for big businesses. Take for example Target's unprecedented collection of customer purchases and then crunching it to discover private health issues such as pregnancy and then using that information to refine promotions and coupons to unsuspecting individuals.


This was not information gleaned from medical visits or online searches. Target collected seemingly benign pieces of disparate data like the purchase of certain vitamins, toiletries like cotton balls, antibacterial wipes, and other non-baby related items and FIGURED OUT that customers were preparing to come home with a baby.


As artificial intelligence continues to advance, the idea of any kind of privacy is quickly becoming a myth. This of course feeds into my writer's brain because I take ordinary situations and extrapolate how they can go disastrously wrong. Which given the amount of predictive and behavioral analytics being used to process our personal information, is alarming, to say the least.


So what if Target figures out I like cream soda or that I'm having a kid? I can use the coupons, you say. There's no disputing the convenience store analytics provide. My concern, much like the issues in my current novel, is that predictive data when taken too seriously, can harm consumers.


What if after tracking the massive amounts of sugar, fat, and alcohol you consume weekly according to the data you provide when you use those coupons and store cards, your health insurance now has the evidence to move you to another more expensive and limited policy because according to their algorithm, you're setting yourself up for a heart attack?


Or worse, purchases of adaptive equipment like rails for your shower or simply a cane for walking made at drug stores give an indication that you are struggling with a health issue and therefore more likely to take time off from work, require more than what your HMO says they'll pay your personal physician, and otherwise indicate you're an overall bad risk for paying off that house you want. Will it get to that? I hope not, but it's sliding quickly in that direction.


Consider Social Ranking in China. This is not one central government system like in Black Mirror. This is a multitude of social and government entities sharing information with little to no transparency as to what the algorithm does and why.


Don't think it's dangerous?


Consider, Liu Hu, a journalist in China. According to Wired, he was, "writing about censorship and government corruption. Because of his work, Liu has been arrested and fined — and blacklisted. Liu found he was named on a List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People's Court as "not qualified" to buy a plane ticket, and banned from traveling some train lines, buying property, or taking out a loan." ~Wired, China's Social Credit System Explained.


How long until protesters caught on city cameras or on cell phones start to feel the effects of that kind of exposure? We all cheer when the horrible store customers yelling at minimum wage employees get their social comeuppance. Teams of Twitterers dox them, disseminate their private information, and generally destroy their lives for a bit.


Which brings me to my novel. In The Stolen Stars, the social ranking system centers around your health and your loyalty. Specifically whether or not you've kept up on your vaccinations and if you've engaged in protests. Not, have you been arrested? Not are you inciting violence? The question of whether or not you maintain your rights as a citizen depends on how much trouble you are or possibly can be.


Scary? Yes. Out of the realm of possibility? It appears not. It's not central to the story, but it is something I know future generations will have to deal with. It had to be built into the world of the future. My worry is, I'm setting the trouble too far into the future. My worry is, that particular flavor of dystopia is already here.


What do you think?

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