Big data, ¿big brother?
The mass generation of data now means we can access internet services like never before. But is our privacy being compromised?
You’ve had a Messenger chat going with a friend for days about organising a trip to Morocco. You share a lamb tagine recipe on your Facebook wall. You ‘like’ some photos of the Erg Chebbi desert. And on the sidebar of your social network an advert appears with offers for the best hotels in Marrakesh. A coincidence? No, big data. The internet swallows up all the data we enter into it, but we're not always aware how significant the trail of bytes we leave behind actually is.
Figures for internet use in Spain speak for themselves: in the last two years the number of internet users has increased by 6% to 37.87 million today. According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística) in the last three months of 2016, 80.6% of the Spanish population between the ages of 16 and 74 had browsed online, and among 16 to 24 year olds that figure increased to more than 98%. And the complete overtaking of mobile phones in our lives has also had an impact. According to a report from the Telefónica Foundation entitled The Information Society in Spain, 79.5% of users between the ages of 14 and 19 make decisions about leisure activities on the go based on information they find on mobile devices: suggestions for concerts based on the music they're listening to on Spotify, film adverts at the start of YouTube videos, recommendations for the latest video games on Twitter, and bars and restaurants that come up on a Google Maps search... Any online visit can turn into a potential purchase.
The new digital society
Touching the screen on our phone is so simple that we forget the whole framework that lives behind it. How have we adapted to this constant relationship with the internet and data? According to Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras, professor and director of the Culture and Technology Institute (Instituto de Cultura y Tecnología) at Carlos III Madrid University (Spain) we’ve done so with “confusion and a lack of awareness”. According to the professor “we don’t perceive the consequences of many of our activities, such as the location data our phone gives off in our pockets. It's like walking along the beach and not noticing the footprints you're leaving behind in the sand”.
Once we realise, he continued, “we tend to interpret it in the extreme, as a Big Brother that has control over us all”. And while many experts downplay the supposed control data can exert, there are many examples of experiments which use the intelligence for, among other things, predicting crowds and controlling demonstrations.
“From the moment you look out of the digital window, you’re exposed to everyone else’s gaze: even if you’re alone in your bedroom with your mobile”, said Rodríguez de las Heras. The professor went on to explain that’s why “21st century education must teach us how to behave in this new space on the cloud. Education and values are our online defences”. We shouldn’t be afraid of the source of enrichment big data represents, said the expert: but we need to regulate it properly.
The true potential lies in using the information as a tool to predict
Legislation to put a net on the internet
So big data can be a great tool for businesses - but is it a threat to users? In 2016 the European Union made a move and approved the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will come into force on 25 May 2018. The reform is a response to technological advances, and to the fact that as we share ever more data (consciously or unconsciously) it gets easier to generate profiles on everybody, which could ultimately undermine our privacy.
The richness of big data
If data is the oil of the 21st century, big data is the refinery. “It's a technological muscle that could solve a lot of our problems”, explained Ignacio Bustillo, big data consultant and CEO of devAcademy school for developers. “The true potential lies in using it as a tool to predict; and what’s more, in real time, in thousandths of a second. With this massive intake of data we’re heading squarely towards artificial intelligence”, explained the engineer.
Predictive analysis, or anticipating future behaviours based on past actions is as such one of the keys big data holds. But where does all the data the algorithms use come from? Us. “With free applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Gmail, the trade-off is services for data. When we don’t pay it's because we ourselves are the product”, explains Bustillo.
So is our privacy the price we have to pay in exchange for a service? Yes, in a way. But according to the expert we shouldn’t take it personally: “Businesses aren’t looking to spy on a person, they're not interested in names or identification numbers, but behaviour data and general descriptions they can use in global computation” he explained. They're looking at information such as our level of education, the number of transactions on our credit cards, searches on Google Maps... Our control chip is anonymous, but yes we're being analysed.
In the case of social networks for example, we decide what personal information we feed into the machine every day. But when you go on Facebook, it’s the platform that's asking you what you think, and what you’ve done today. They may appear to be innocent questions, but there have been cases where Facebook has used the platform to target adverts to very specific audiences, such as young people going through times of insecurity and stress.
A priori, the similarities with the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984 may be alarming, but this isn’t Big Brother. Technological progress marches on, and at the end of the day we have it to thank for being better able to care for our health, reduce our energy consumption, and - why not - go and enjoy the best hotel Marrakesh has to offer. Bon voyage!
By Patricia Ruiz Guevara