On Big Data, Profiling, Fake News and Political Interference

This week I gave a keynote at the SANER 2018 conference in Campobasso, Italy. After the talk, some journalist from RAI asked me to do an interview with him about the topics above and I realized that although I have opinions about these topics, it’s pretty hard to quickly pull all that together on the spot for a video clip of a few minutes. So, I guess this post is to atone for the interview where I managed to only get a small part of my views expressed.

First of all, what is important to realize is that there is nothing new under the sun. Profiling, fake news and political interference using large efforts to accumulate data have been part of human history. We don’t have to go back further than the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to see examples of every citizen being profiled, spied upon and tracked. Similarly, the news in those countries was not exactly objective, to say the least. And similarly, in the west the people deciding what to select for sharing in the news still use their biases, political leanings, government preferences, etc. And although fake news, just blatantly claiming untruths, is simply wrong, it sits at the end of a scale where also interpretation of events, creative or truthful, occurs. Determining “the truth” in areas outside of the hard sciences is not trivial when you think about it. Realizing this, I gave up watching the news more than a decade ago. I don’t watch television. Period. I only occasionally read news papers, online or otherwise. Instead, I try to think for myself and to speak the things that I feel are true, rather than parrot what I’ve heard some pretty face say on a big screen. So far, that has worked pretty well for me.

Second, the indignance that people express about the use of data by companies like Google and Facebook continues to surprise me. It must be pretty obvious that if you’re getting something for free, the company that gives this free thing to you must make money somewhere else. To paraphrase a popular quote: if you’re not paying, you are the product. Now, understand me well, I do think that regulation is needed and I am glad that GDPR is being put in place. But for most people, it will mean that they accept the terms of the service that they have been using and move on with their lives. Personally, I activate DNT (Do Not Track) where available, use ad blockers and other tools to minimize my digital trail, but I do accept that using the free online services and tools means that I am paying with my data.

Third, there are many, many uses of data that are to your advantage. Most companies collect data not to profile you, personally. In fact, they don’t really care about you as an individual. Instead, they care about optimizing their product or service by experimenting with different ways of conducting certain workflows, user interfaces and other aspects of the product. Their use of the data that you generate when you use their product or service leads to a better product that improves your life. Similarly, together with that of millions of others, your medical data, among the most personal and private of information, can be used to identify diseases earlier, link lifestyle choices with medical risks more clearly, etc. It may save your life or that of your children. And with the increasing prevalence of AI, machine- and deep-learning, these benefits will only continue to compound.

Fourth, there is a huge advantage to personalization of a product or service. When you use Amazon, the suggestions and recommendations are concerned with your interests. Spotify suggests new music to you that you would have never found otherwise based on what it knows about your music tastes. Personalized medicine is a relatively novel area where treatments are selected and configured based on your DNA and other relevant factors. However, for a company to personalize its service to you, it needs to create a profile of you, a process known as profiling. Again, if done well, this creates real, tangible benefits to you that improve the quality of your life. Possibly a lot.

Fifth, the societal benefit that the internet, computers, big data and personalization have brought to the world should not be underestimated. Especially in the western world, we live in THE BEST TIME in the ENTIRE history of mankind. Life literally has never been better. It’s easy to forget that, but on every metric concerning the human condition, progress has been phenomenal and it’s only accelerating. All this progress has come from technology and, during the last decades, from information technology. Remember that we all walk around with a small supercomputer in our pocket that gives us access to a “tree of knowledge” that is unmatched. That we can use that same device to talk to anyone on the planet right here and now. That in a few years, self-driving cars will largely remove the terrible suffering because of traffic victims (around 40.000 a year just in the US). The list goes on and on. And many of these benefits come for free! Free!

Concluding, I do not mean to claim that we’re living in a perfect world. There is a lot of unnecessary suffering in the world and for all our efforts, I do not see that disappear. However, much of the physical suffering now takes place much later in life and is caused by natural causes rather than by famine, war or oppression. Mental issues seems to be a larger source of suffering during modern times due, in part I think, to the fact that many have chosen a life of enlightened hedonism rather than put their lives in service of something that is meaningful to them.

Big data and profiling are tools without any inherent associated morality. Similarly to using a knife or a car, we can use the tool to provide societal and personal benefit or to harm others. The current public conversation seems to only focus on the negatives and this threatens to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather than instituting rules and blindly following these, I would like us to start thinking again. To go back to the first principles that we built western society upon and to ensure that all these fantastic tools that keep being added to our toolbox are used for beneficial purposes while minimizing the detrimental consequences.

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One thought on “On Big Data, Profiling, Fake News and Political Interference

  1. Brilliant and gifted insight — I think we need to fight the long legacy of abuse, malfeasance and corruption but as you point out blame is being misdirected at technology and social media which should be an enabler to help bring corruption and tyranny to an end — What I believe is the first goal of artificial general intelligence along with a philanthropic exponential technological singularity which is to greatly improve the quality of life and standard of living in all respects — I believe you expressed the philanthropic role as a primary driver often overlooked.


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