Big Data And Privacy
Hmm, privacy, where to start?
Over the long Easter weekend I met up with an old friend and his partner. They’ve lived in Spain for a couple of years now, and it’s a rare treat when I get to catch up with them. After a couple of drinks, some surprisingly good pub grub and a couple of hours reminiscing over our nerdy school years, we moved onto the present and got chatting about our jobs.
From there, it wasn’t long before we stumbled into the conversation I so often find myself having with people outside of my field; data, and the looming demise of privacy that comes with it.
That’s right, I’m the guy who spends my free time talking about data. In the pub, no less. For shame.
It was quickly revealed that both my friend and his partner have strong feelings on the subject. Google, selling their search history? Facebook, shoving adverts in their face for stuff they’d searched for? What gives them the right? Who do they think they are??? The surface concerns that anyone who has ever given it any consideration has faced. Until, that is, you realise that nobody in their right-mind would care about the average person’s browser history beyond flogging them a product or two. You’d be amazed how useless all those cat videos you’ve watched are to any shady spy agency.
Now is probably the time to add that during our conversation, my friend updated his Facebook ‘checking in’ at the pub, and his partner tweeted three times (one of which was a photo of her food, a particular pet peeve of mine). Both own expensive looking smart phones, with presumably constant data connections, and she was wearing an activity tracker bracelet/watch, the app for which she updated religiously with every nibble or sip of drink she ingested. I couldn’t bring myself to point these things out at the time, as I withstood the storm of their data collection based ire, but I decided to really upset them by explaining the basics of a subject that has recently piqued my interest; the Internet of Things.
There is a good chance that the fact that you’re here and reading this means you’ve at least heard the term before, but I’m going to explain it a little just in case, so bear with me.
The concept is simple; the Internet of Things (IoT) is the collection of electronic, network-connected devices that gather and share data between themselves. Take for example the activity tracker. Heart rate, steps taken, blood pressure, even sleep patterns are recorded by sensors in the wristband and reported to the app. The app identifies patterns and makes suggestions to the user on anything from exercise plans to ideal bed times. It requires no active input from the user, beyond putting on the watch, and it collects data on everything they do throughout the day.
Think a little bigger and you have the GPS in a car, talking to various systems in and around the vehicle, giving directions, monitoring fuel levels, warning of traffic jams or accidents ahead. Even the roads themselves can provide data to the cloud, which can be fed to receiving devices. Smart Concrete is laced with sensors to report the integrity of the concrete itself, identifying weak spots or cracks, and even detect ice or heavy rainfall to advise drivers of hazards on their route.
Entire cities are becoming ‘Smart’. Amsterdam, Barcelona and Stockholm are just a few of the flagship cities pioneering Smart City initiatives, which allow the management of inner city traffic, street lighting and even monitoring and reporting on available parking spaces.
Do Technology and Privacy Necessarily Collide?
When machines greedily gather data on every element of modern life, from your whereabouts and shopping habits right down to how well you slept last night, how can anyone expect to keep anything private?
Unfortunately our desire for privacy as a society is far outweighed by our reliance on the very machines that deprive us of it. My friend expressed concern at being ‘tracked’ when his phone’s GPS was active, but readily filled in the tiny questionnaire that would allow him onto the public Wi-Fi in the pub. I’ve heard quite a few people complain that Facebook somehow knows what they’ve been searching for and floods their front page with it, but how many of us will gladly enter our email for a chance at a voucher or a freebie? In an age where purchases can be made by waving your watch over a chip and pin device, privacy seems to have become less of a right and more of an optional extra. It can still be attained for the most part, though as a society we seem more than willing to cash it in for the latest time saving technology. It is a price we pay for efficiency and accessibility, but there is another element to consider, one that has had its importance confirmed by the recent Panama Papers release.
All of this data, collected and shared by the myriad devices that form the Internet of Things, brings with it accountability. While we sat in the pub, government agents presumably rummaging through the data generated by my drinks order, I don’t think I swayed them too much on their distrust of the all seeing eye of modern technology.
Since then however, I haven’t seen a single picture of their food, which I’m taking as progress.