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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Big data not what Orwell feared

    We’ve all been taught that privacy is one of the finer things in life. We know leaving the bathroom door open is not socially acceptable and that keeping our ATM PINs from strangers probably decreases our risk of getting robbed. What we often don’t realize is that privacy is effectual less often than we imagine, especially on the Internet, thanks to something called “big data.”

    Big data is the next big computational trend, providing more data to companies and advertising agencies than is humanly possible to imagine. Perhaps the easiest way to think about big data is as the strategic information about ourselves that we litter across the Internet. Think of your last Google search for “how to grow cacti in Antarctica” or the Facebook page you liked about cats in weird places. Less than 24 hours later, cats and cacti are showing up on your Facebook news feed, and Google is suggesting the best places to make such purchases, all thanks to big data.

    Even tech giants like Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Oracle Corp. have a difficult time describing what big data actually is, which makes it all the more tiresome for consumers like us to try and figure it out for ourselves.

    But while we can’t comprehend everything about it, not all big data has to be bad data.

    When you consider the amount of data a single site like Amazon or Google has access to, it’s easy to understand how people might be concerned about a “stalker economy.” In fact, according to an article by Jerry Michalski of Forbes, Facebook is valued at $100 billion because it is a venerable treasure trove of your personal information, voluntarily put online by you.

    Google openly admits to collecting data from devices, like login information, location information, unique application numbers, cookies and other anonymous identifiers. Amazon has access to 152 million consumer accounts, complete with spending and viewing habits.

    But while big data may seem like the next Big Brother catastrophe, it’s little more than the evolution of our consumer society.

    Imagine the ways that safe, controlled harnessing of big data could benefit our everyday lives.

    Kord Davis, author of “Ethics of Big Data,” argues that big data presents us with a chance to analyze and assess the human condition like never before. Can we predict economic trends earlier and with more accuracy? Can we expand participatory medicine or predict epidemics before they wreak havoc? Can we look at the data and figure out ways to improve our education? These are questions big data has the power to answer.

    And, of course, big data enhances our shopping experiences. The ads you see are targeted directly to your purchasing habits, streamlining your consumption and ridding your browser of those aggressive pop-ups.

    Even Netflix relies on big data aggregation. Without it, there would be no “Popular” scroll bar or suggestions tailored to your viewing history. By looking at the statistics of what and how much you watch, Netflix has created a site personally tailored to your viewing preferences. You certainly can’t say that about your now-defunct neighborhood Blockbuster.

    Yes, big data is an aggregate of everything data-mining companies want to know about you, from your spending habits to your love interests, but the advertising companies that use this data never really know you.

    Your habits are simply analyzed by an algorithm that treats you in the same manner as the thousands of other people who have roughly the same online habits as you.

    The collection of data you willingly post on Facebook, Google, Twitter or any other site is so vast that you are merely a speck among millions, if not trillions, of other data points.

    While we are accountable for protecting our sensitive data, there’s no use in worrying about data collection from companies seeking to sell you new products. Big data holds the key to consumer trends and preferences, and it pushes us to analyze and assess the human condition in new and exciting ways.

    We should embrace what it has created for us so far: a streamlined, consumer-centric economy based on us and our preferences.

    — Mackenzie Brown is a pre-physiology freshman. Follow her @DailyWildcat

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