Big Brother, Little Data

I keep coming across alarmist articles about big data, big business, big brother and big government and no doubt there are some valid concerns, but at the same time seem to be missing historical perspective, in the same way that similar articles last year claimed that young people who use cell phones were becoming less empathetic. “Less empathetic than who” was a question unasked, because you could pick at random any of the genocidal regimes of the twentieth century in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas and ask yourself, are young Americans today less empathetic than the good citizens of those regions were?

While the amount of data being collected by big tech and looked into by internal spies is getting a lot of attention, it’s important not to forget the power of little data. For example, in America today, there are several small data points that can make a huge difference in your daily life and your interactions with law enforcement. For example, is your skin dark? Are you speaking Spanish? Such “little data” is far more significant than the “smart” light bulb in your kitchen.

Historically, of course, this has long been true. Do you look Muslim? Does your name sound Jewish? Are you a woman? Do you have a proper beard? Depending on where and when you live, such small data can make all the difference in your life. Your phone can tell the NSA whether you are at home or not, but so can your neighbor, who could easily be a police informant. It’s happened countless times in the past. In Iraq they said that half the prisoners in the US prison there were people turned in by their local enemies.

Most people would still be better off worrying more about their neighbor than about Skynet, and some data points are more significant than others

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