In recent years, with advances in data-storage capacity and accessibility, more and more information about us is being captured and analysed by government agencies and private companies. While there is some nervousness about this, the proponents of ‘Big Data’ argue that the benefits outweigh the risks to privacy.
For example, the benefits of having huge pools of data from medical records to examine – allowing hitherto unrecognised relationships to be identified and new hypotheses to be formed – are said to be worth the risk that medical confidentiality will be breached. While we’re also told that if the police and security services have access to mobile phone, credit card and travel card data, then it will be easier to prevent crime and terrorism. However, concerns are not only raised over confidentiality, but civil liberties and political judgment.
There are fears that data may be used preemptively – leading to premature or unnecessary state intervention. Will it be harder, for example, to hold to the principle that people should be free to drink alcohol as they please if opponents have stats that seem to confirm a strong link between alcohol and violent crime? Also, the way that scientific data is used now as a replacement for political principle is already troubling. Will politicians also try to justify policies using the supposedly unimpeachable evidence of Big Data rather than political arguments?
Should we question the hype around Big Data? Is it really true that the benefits of Big Data outweigh the dangers? Should we place limits on data collection to protect individual liberties? Even in areas where data is put to benign use, could over-reliance on algorithms impede the process of human judgment? Is it time to recognise the limitations of Big Data and put the stats in their place?