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BIG DATA: A Big Future or Big Problems?

The speed with which mankind is penetrating the worldwide web is growing exponentially, and every action inside it leaves a trace in the form of binary code: every second, Google receives more than 60,000 search requests; and every minute, more than a billion users of the Facebook social network send 30 million messages every and watch around 3 million videos.

Add to all this the millions of bank transactions, scrolled internet pages, goods bought in online shops or even simply photos posted and opinions expressed on the net.

By as early as 2020, the file on each inhabitant of the planet will be comparable to an online library of 5,000 books. And whereas just a few years ago, data was accumulating chaotically in terabytes and zettabytes without finding any practical application, analysts today are armed with software solutions such as Spark and Hadoop. The era of big data accumulation is over, having made way for the era of processing and analysis of results.

The possibilities of big data are revealed more fully in the now trendy concept of the Internet of Things (IoT). As an example, you (and several million others like you) wear a fitness bracelet on your wrist, recording your body indicators.

By connecting to the internet, the data in the gadget becomes available to the worldwide web. In the medical sphere, the analysis of such data makes it possible to evaluate the health indicators of entire social groups, to identify problem areas, to improve the quality of care and to propose more effective methods of treatment. Google Flu Trends is already helping to analyze data on the spread of cold-related diseases, and in the foreseeable future big data will help medicine to confine and extinguish the focal points of global epidemics and to improve the efficiency of medication using the findings of dataflow analysis from patients. And this is just one application. Analysts predict that by 2025 more than 30 billion everyday domestic appliances will be connected to the internet. And whereas today, the IoT market is variously valued at $600–900 bn, by 2025 it has the potential to grow to $5–6 trillion.

But there are two sides to every coin. The dark side of big data is the transparency of the user’s personal information. In the foreseeable future, the system will know everything about us: height, weight, the size of our bank balance, depressive moods, political views and sexual preferences…by analyzing this data on a global scale it will be possible to track moments and contacts, to obtain levers of influence and means of blackmail, and even to manipulate the social mood of society as a whole.

One vivid example of this is the recent story of the British company Cambridge Analytical, which the global media have accused of manipulation in political marketing. Using psychological targeting of social network user profiles, Cambridge Analytical was able to shape public opinion, thereby influencing the Brexit result and ensuring Trump’s victory in the American presidential election. Whether these conclusions on Cambridge Analytica’s actions are valid remains an open question, but the potential opportunities for manipulating the minds of large social groups by analyzing their personal data are an attractive prospect for many. At the business level, the use of such information provides an opportunity to expand the customer base and boost sales; at a higher level, big data can be used to monitor social moods, to predict terrorist attacks, outbursts of violence and even ethnic conflicts… Few would disagree that with such a powerful resource in their hands, it is unlikely that opinion leaders and the powers-that-be will deny themselves the pleasure of exploiting it.

Our smartphones, tablets and e-readers are a huge questionnaire that we, like it or not, are continuously filling in. Analysis of search results linked to an account enables law enforcement to spot potentially dangerous members of society and to anticipate crimes. Every day, the US National Security Agency monitors around 2 billion telephone calls, emails and personal messages. By analyzing big data it is possible to track a person’s movements, to identify who is meeting with whom, and how stable these relationships are. In 2014, a group of researchers in Singapore published a fascinating study. Using data on the locations of more than 600,000 mobile devices, the researchers predicted movements and built a map of the social contacts of the people they were studying. More than 60% of the results turned out to be unique. The study bore the eloquent title “Not So Unique in the Crowd: A Simple and Effective Algorithm for Anonymizing Location Data.”

The consulting company Ganter predicts that by as early as 2018 around 50% of all crimes will involve invasion of personal space and improper user of personal data. The algorithms for protection and analysis of personal information today are far from perfect and the issue of digital ethics is entirely up to the individual. As Michal Kosinski, a Polish student at Cambridge and one of the inventors of the psychological targeting method, said in response to the mass resentment directed against him after the US presidential election: “I am not to blame here. It’s not me who built the bomb. I merely demonstrated that they exist.”

By Anastasiia Bilous