Big data and bad interpretation

Last week I moved into a new place in St. Louis so I haven’t been writing as much. But I’m back at Al Jazeera English with a new column on the danger of big data. I argue that the greatest threat of online surveillance is not that they know us, but that they think they do, and we are hostage to their interpretation. This true whether Facebook or the NSA. An excerpt:

Social media structures time into status, making ordinary people the PR agents of their own lives. Encouraged to “share”, we do, but we also exaggerate and omit. The average Facebook profile is not a mirror reflection, but a Cubist portrait of contradiction and selective truth.

One can find out everything about a person on the internet and come away knowing nothing. But try explaining this to law enforcement, or anyone in the business of determining your identity through a digital lens. How do you defend yourself against yourself? Every explanation comes out like a lie.

“Every time, I think twice before I put something on Facebook. I have to make sure it doesn’t give the wrong idea to law enforcement,” a young Muslim woman, living in Queens, told Al Jazeera. Aware that the NYPD was monitoring Muslims, she self-censored – the inevitable by-product of surveillance.

Defenders of state surveillance often argue that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. But that assumes that what you present to the world will be interpreted fairly. For populations already (and unjustly) viewed as suspicious, every disclosure is a risk. The NSA sweeps have given a taste of this fear to the broader population.

Read more at Al Jazeera English.

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One Response to Big data and bad interpretation

  1. Martin West says:

    We’ve seen that the military has its own uses for the social sciences–eg, “Human Terrain Teams” of anthropologists in Afghanistan and “behavioral science consultant” psychologists devising interrogation strategies at Guantanamo. As a sociologist, do you have any thoughts or concerns about the NSA’s vast data trove being put to use along these lines? As a layperson, it’s occurred to me that there must be vast sociological potential in all this information. I’ve seen a few articles touch momentarily on this idea, but none that I’m aware of have really addressed it squarely.

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