Big Data Meets Big Brother: The Privacy Risks of Big Data

In Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier consider the benefits and threats of a big data world. In the excerpt below, the authors outline the privacy risks of big data, revealing how the value of information no longer resides solely in its primary purpose, and analysing the implications of a world in which more data is being collected and stored about each one of us than ever before.


For almost forty years, until the Berlin wall came down in 1989, the east German state security agency known as the Stasi spied on millions of people. Employing around a hundred thousand full-time staff, the Stasi watched from cars and streets. It opened letters and peeked into bank accounts, bugged apartments and wire-tapped phone lines. And it induced lovers and couples, parents and children, to spy on each other, betraying the most basic trust humans have in each other. The resulting files — including at least 39 million index cards and 70 miles of documents — recorded and detailed the most intimate aspects of the lives of ordinary people. East Germany was one of the most comprehensive surveillance states ever seen.

Twenty years after East Germany’s demise, more data is being collected and stored about each one of us than ever before. We’re under constant surveillance: when we use our credit cards to pay, our cellphones to communicate, or our Social Security numbers to identify ourselves. In 2007 the British media relished the irony that there were more than 30 surveillance cameras within 200 yards of the London apartment where George Orwell wrote 1984. Well before the advent of the Internet, specialized companies like Equifax, Experian, and Acxiom collected, tabulated, and provided access to personal in- formation for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The Internet has made tracking easier, cheaper, and more useful. And clandestine three-letter government agencies are not the only ones spying on us. Amazon monitors our shopping preferences and Google our browsing habits, while Twitter knows what’s on our minds. Facebook seems to catch all that information too, along with our social relationships. Mobile operators know not only whom we talk to, but who is nearby.

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