Fire cooks -- and burns. Oil powers our economy, and fills the air with carbon. Nuclear power can deliver unlimited clean energy, or can be fashioned into terrifying weapons.
These new technologies don't exactly come with convenient instruction guides -- we have to collectively learn how to extract the benefits without creating more harm than good.
Many of us are now looking at big data in the recent light of what these tools might mean in the hands of large, powerful governments: boon or bane?
Or is this yet another example where we as a society haven't figured out what we're comfortable with, and what we're not?
It Isn't Just Entertainment Anymore
The all-knowing, all-powerful government computer system has long been a staple of action films. Fragments of evidence immediately become rich, nuanced dossiers that conveniently accelerate the plot.
Mostly, this capability is presented as being used for the greater good; but there are a few storylines that assume otherwise.
Personally, I've always believed that assembling gigantic, cross-referenced real-time databases with every phone call, every email, every sensor trace, etc. -- well, it makes a nice story, but certainly outside the scope of current technologies and resources.
I'm less sanguine then I used to be. The supply and demand curves are shifting very quickly.
On the technology supply side, we often get jaded by the progress of our technology. For example, an eight-thousand core computing complex backed by dozens of petabytes of storage isn't quite as amazing as it once was. Feeding such a behemoth with all sorts of rich data feeds is certainly something that's done every day.
The real action is on the demand side: governments (like businesses) have quickly realized that all sorts of policy agendas can be greatly accelerated through big data analytics. The information is there, the tools are there -- we just have to figure out how to use it.
From predicting elections to spotting potential terrorist threats: the capabilities are now just far too powerful to ignore.
And there's no putting that genie back in the bottle.
Watching The Ripples
I believe one red-herring in the debate is around metadata vs. data itself: e.g. we don't record your calls, we just collect the data about your calls -- and, please don't worry, none of it is personally identifiable.
No one should buy that argument. The bounds of privacy can easily be breached with something as benign as a search log; and that's before you start mashing it up with other data sources.
In this morning news, two specific examples were given of alleged bad guys who were caught thanks to US government listening programs. While I'm sure that's a good thing, I'd like to see the other side of the ledger as well -- potential innocent citizens who had their privacy breached to achieve this result.
The online providers (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, et. al.) have started to attempt to distance themselves from government-sponsored information-gathering, and for good reason: their businesses are built on establishing trust with consumers, and recent disclosures are not exactly confidence builders.
And those deep in the tech business are certainly not surprised.
I'm sure we'll see much more along these lines. Will people demand online services that keep information out of the hands of governments? Very unlikely, based on past behavior.
The Real Question: How Do We Feel About Our Governments?
Certainly, every government has the mandate to protect its citizens and its interests using the best available technologies and techniques. That's clearly a legitimate role -- we would demand nothing less.
A few have pointed out that large corporations do something similar: gather as much information as possible about us as consumers, and then use that information in their own best interests -- is what governments are doing all that different?
For example, I know full well Google indexes my emails to serve me better ads -- and I seem to be OK with it. And we've all had those creepy ads follow us around from site to site in our browsers.
But all Google and their brethren want to do is sell me more stuff, as do all companies. It's a rather benign agenda -- there's nothing they can do to really harm me, other than perhaps serving me those annoying ads.
Although in theory the purpose of government is to serve its citizens, that lofty goal has historically gone awry in the hands of specific agencies and individuals who think they know better. Theoretically, our elected representatives should be safeguarding our interests.
Government, unfortunately, is comprised of human beings, and we are an imperfect lot.
The Need For Increased Transparency
The private sector has made some decent progress in this area. While not perfect, I think it's moving in the right direction: here is what we collect about you, here is how we use it, here are some options you have in this regard.
And, let's remember, we can choose not to do business with any commercial entity that we feel uncomfortable about.
Not the case with the government: it's the sole provider for many essential services. And reporting to the IRS is not optional.
In theory, the government works for us: we elect them, we pay for them. I know, we have to remind ourselves of that from time to time. And if we aren't collectively comfortable with the lack of insight into how our personal information is being used, we certainly have the tools at hand to make our views known.
If we're motivated to use them, that is ...
Do We Really Care?
Government -- for the most part -- attempts to reflect our priorities. We want an educated society, we want to be safe from a variety of threats and maladies, we want a prosperous society, we want the trains to run on time, we want basic rights and so on.
Will we demand privacy?
I think not. While we talk a good game, our collective behavior shows that we care comparatively little about our personal information and how it used. We freely use online services, knowing fully well how the information is being used. We routinely disgorge our most personal details to financial institutions and healthcare providers -- trusting them to serve our best interests.
It doesn't take more than three minutes on Facebook or Twitter to realize that we're all comfortable in providing TMI. And, let's not forget, the government has been in the dossier-building business for many, many years.
It's just that the new tech has made it possible to take it to an entirely new level.
Just like other game-changing technologies, I'm sure we'll eventually figure out where we want the boundaries to be.
But it's certainly an uncomfortable process ...