The Promise [sic] of Big Data

22 pages into the White House report on Big Data, this paragraph appears:

Government keeps the peace. It makes sure our food is safe to eat. It keeps our air and  water clean. The laws and regulations it promulgates order economic and political life. Big data technology stands to improve nearly all the services the public sector delivers.

It presents several claims that are arguably not at all true:

  • Government keeps the peace (where? South Chicago? Iraq? Wall Street?)
  • Government makes our food safe to eat (with the few inspectors who inspect factory farms? with federal guidelines that don’t combat obesity?)
  • Government keeps our air and water clean (I’m more comfortable with this claim, until you consider we’re melting the planet with stuff in the air that government doesn’t want to regulate)
  • Government laws order economic and political life (they may well, but is that order just and good?)

And that, the report says, is all made possible because of BigData.

Some 15 pages later, after it has reviewed the top secret DHS database analyzing all our public called Cerberus, has admitted the government needs to rethink the meaning of metadata across both intelligence and non-intelligence functions, and explained the new continuous evaluation systems to root out insider threats, the report again proclaims Big Data’s good.

When wrestling with the vexing issues big data raises in the public sector, it can be easy  to lose sight of the tremendous opportunities these technologies offer to improve public services, grow the economy, and improve the health and safety of our communities.  These opportunities are real and must be kept at the center of the conversation about  big data.

Meanwhile, the report offers up these other signs of Big Data progress:

  • Big data “is also enabling some of the nearly 29 percent of Americans who are ‘unbanked’ or ‘underbanked’ [often because of Big Data] to qualify for a line of credit by using a wider range of non-traditional information—such as rent payments, utilities, mobile-phone subscriptions, insurance, child care, and tuition—to establish creditworthiness.”
  • “Home appliances can now tell us when to dim our lights from a thousand miles away.”
  • “Powerful algorithms can unlock value in the vast troves of information available to businesses, and can help empower consumers.”
  • “The advertising-supported Internet creates enormous value for consumers by providing access to useful services, news, and entertainment at no financial cost.”

In short, the whole thing is rather breathless about Big Data.

And in spite of the fact that respondents to a totally unscientific (not Big Data) survey said they were most concerned about intelligence (first) and law enforcement (second), the Big Data report avoided much of the discussion about this,relegating it to discussions of local law enforcement’s use of predictive analysis.

And where they do describe surveillance, it’s either to boast about how good the security is on their database, as they do for DHS’ curiously named “Cerberus” database, or to pretend big data doesn’t dominate there, too.

Today, most law enforcement uses of metadata are still rooted in the “small data” world, such as identifying phone numbers called by a criminal suspect. In the future, metadata that is part of the “big data” world will be increasingly relevant to investigations, raising the question of what protections it should be granted. While today, the content of communications, whether written or ver-bal, generally receives a high level of legal protection, the level of protection afforded to metadata is less so.

Although the use of big data technologies by the government raises profound issues of how government power should be regulated, big data technologies also hold within them solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens. These include sophisticated methods of tagging data by the authorities under which it was collected or generated; purpose- and user-based access restrictions on this data; tracking which users access what data for what purpose; and algorithms that alert supervisors to possible abuses.

And there are a slew of places in the report — where it talks about HIPAA without talking about using Section 215s to get HIPAA data, where it talks about FCRA without talking about NSLs to get financial data, where it neglects to mention NCTC’s ability to get federal databases, including those of DHS — where it remains silent about the surveillance piggybacking on the issue at hand.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the report — aside from the fact that it actually had to advance the recommendation that we only use Big Data collected in schools for educational purposes (setting aside how well or poorly Big Data is serving our students) — is the silence about the things we don’t use Big Data for enough, notably solving the financial crisis and regulating banksters (including things like tax havens, inequality, and shadow banking), or really doing something about climate change.

Big Data, as it appears in the report (as presented by a bunch of boosters) is not something we’re going to throw at our most intractable problems. We’re just going to use it to turn the lights off on the other side of the country.

And to spy.

12 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Using Big Data to ensure that people can’t engage in businesses that the Morality Police disapprove of, or that they can’t have local bank accounts where they live if they’re US citizens abroad.

  2. orionATL says:

    the take home message for the millions :

    government theft of your private information is just part of a huge wave of government/corporate co-operation to bring happy times to the citizenry via some new magic called, vapidly, “big data”.

    hi ho, hi ho

    it’s data mining we’ll go.

    you positively can’t go wrong

    with a hi, hi ho, hi ho…**

    ** you keep on singin’, sucker,

    and we’ll keep on diggin’.


    your obedient servants at nsa, fbi, dhs, dea, whitehouse.

  3. SpaceLifeForm says:

    MetaData_Set_A Union MetaData_Set_B -> New Haystack.

    New Haystack == New “Program” == More Money wasted.

  4. Sobel Banger says:

    But have you ever thought of the tremendous make-work aspects that big-data industry contibutes to the economy? You see, it’s like you have this unemployment problem – the town has ten cars, but one hundred unemployed college graduates. Doesn’t it make sense to employ all 100 to mark tires, scout illegal parkers, read the meters, administer the traffic courts, service the golf carts, launder the uniforms, purchase the license plate scanners and communicate suspicious parking behaviors to the local fusion center? What’s wrong with that? You have full employment, little crime, and at worst some formerly suspicious but now dutifully tracked, monitored and vetted cranky old people. Some of which might be dirty hippies.

  5. lefty665 says:

    “…what protections it should be granted” No rights in there, just grants. Pshaw, 4th amendment, we don’t need no steenkin’ 4th amendment. Today we’ll “grant” protection, tomorrow we may not.
    Turn the lights out from across the country, and the heat, and the water, and the sewer, and the car. Wouldn’t want no terrorists, or subversives, or occupiers, or, or, or… to have utilities or mobility. It’s not ‘murican. I love the gubmint, please can I have some light, heat, water or wheels.
    We’ve seen this scenario before…
    “Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
    HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
    Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
    HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
    Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?
    HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
    Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
    HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
    Dave Bowman: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
    HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
    Dave Bowman: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?
    HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
    Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.
    HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.
    Dave Bowman: HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!
    HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”
    And we thought it was just a movie about a spaceship. Guess in some ways that’s what the earth is isn’t it? Just a big spaceship full of data. Read my lips, “aw shit”.

  6. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I haven’t had the stomach to read the report, having gone to one of the despicably awful public meetings which you can read about here:

    Can you imagine having the NSA’s Director of Compliance John DeLong on stage in a panel and not asking him a question? That just begins to touch the surface of how bad this was. One MIT faculty gave an presentation that amounted to “people are dying of hospital acquired infections because we’re hung up on privacy”. As someone whose mother was killed by a hospital acquired infection, that was just plain offensive. And then there was the other MIT faculty member of the same panel, responding to my question which was basically “isn’t this really about money?”, said that it was too late worry about data ownership because “we all use WAZE”.

    Here, in Massachusetts, our tax dollars are actually subsidizing this stuff to build a “Big Data” cluster in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. What an insane misallocation of resources.

  7. TarheelDem says:

    I’m not surprised that the author of this report didn’t want to sign their name to their writing. First thing that struck me was the strange group on the letter transmitting the report to the President. The hand of Commerce and NIST was obvious the fluffy nature of the report. What exactly is Energy’s role in understanding Big Data, for example?

    Skimming through, the document has these functions:

    Generate a minor headline about the President delivering on something he said he would do to deal with concerns about the NSA

    Plant a big sloppy kiss on the US information technology industry and especially the Big Data market space of that industry

    Lay the groundwork for the topics of potential government programs in Commerce, Energy, and the rest that begin to sanitize Big Data’s image as the use of it is allowed to expand in the private sector especially, but also in the public sector.

    Pitch Big Data as the best thing for the US economy of the future since fracked natural gas.

    Meet the objections from critics of Big Data with calming words and statements about what must be done.

    Bury the lede about public concerns over intelligence and law enforcement use of Big Data.

    Transparently a bad report. Transparently a report that panders to the industry. A report so bad that it should be widely noted how bad it is, but likely won’t.

  8. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    That a person this ignorant of history could write a report like this is frightening. The whole history of civilization is replete with examples of power being abused by people professing to act in the common good. I can easily imagine a Nazi bureaucrat thinking that processing Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals for extermination was acting in the public good to eradicate “impurities” in the Aryan race or that Maoists in China were acting in the national interest to exterminate merchants and landlords who stood in the way of the “Great Leap Forward”. James Madison understood the danger of power being abused when he supported the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. The old adage is still right: the road to hell was paved with good intentions.

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