Saturday, August 17, 2013

Is Big Data A Big Problem?

There's the excellent New York Times piece by Charles Duhigg describing how Target department stores were able to identify pregnant women from their purchases, and then send them ads and coupons for future needs. Indeed, there's the funny story of the teenager's dad who angrily confronted the store manager that his daughter had received mailers for infant supplies. "She's still in high school," he complained. A few days later he called to apologize--it turned out she really was pregnant.

Only your department store knows. And your credit card company, and the fast food place, and the grocery store, and probably even your hairdresser. That, even though you've kept it a secret from everybody.

Welcome to the world of Big Data.

Target soon discovered that its sleuthing was perceived as "creepy," and it has since backed off on the hard sell. Now the infant formula ads are mixed in with flyers for lawnmowers and men's socks, to serve as a figleaf for privacy.

Joel Kotkin (here and here), in his continuing crusade against the tech industry, takes the argument to the next level. His complaint is against Google, arguably the granddaddy of Big Data. They are mining everything--web search, this blog, Gmail, the files stored in Drive, to the photos in Picasa. It is all shamelessly marketed to advertisers, so that "Google, which, in the first half of 2012, took in more advertising dollars than all U.S. magazines and newspapers combined." If a data pipsqueak like Target can use data mining so effectively, then surely Google represents a massive invasion of privacy.

Not so, argues George Gilder (during the Q/A session, here). He grew up in a pre-technology, small town where nobody had any privacy whatsoever. Further, there was no way to refute the vicious rumors, even if false. Google, he claims, is a mere piker compared to the small town gossip. He thinks privacy concerns are overrated.

Further, while companies like Target are Google's clients, Google has to be very careful not to abuse people like me. I entrust them with my Gmail and Blogger data on the condition that they're careful with the contents. One serious misstep, and they're out of business.

And that's something Mr. Kotkin doesn't understand. Far from being an impregnable monopoly ("should be regulated like utilities"), Google lives on the edge. Not only are they vulnerable to competition from Amazon, eBay, and Facebook, but also to some public-domain, Wikipedia-like start-up. Customers come and customers go. The tide can flow out very quickly. Indeed, were I to make a prediction, Google will not exist as a Fortune 500 company 30 years from now.

That said, Google's data mining is laughable. The number of clicks ads on my blog receive is a single-digit percentage of the number of visitors. And the number of clicks I make on ads delivered to me isn't even 1% of the feed.

But there is one outfit that is regulated like a utility, and that's the NSA. Mr. Kotkin, along with many of my friends in the Republican Party are in a tizzy about this--a gross violation of privacy, they claim. But it isn't--the government is just doing its job. Technology renders asymmetric warfare possible, and the threat we face from that is very real and very serious. I find the NSA's actions (at least insofar as I know about them) to be entirely reasonable. I'm a small government guy, but national defense and the protection of citizens' lives and property is a proper concern of the government. Privacy be damned.

Two things bother. First, I'm astonished that the folks in the NSA thought this could be kept secret. Of course it was going to leak out--government secrets are just sooo 20th Century. American law enforcement is going to have to do it's job in full glare of the public.

Second, Glenn Reynolds' question--how do you guarantee due process if everything is a crime?--is a good one. There are millions of laws on the books, and some suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day. That they're not prosecuted is solely at police discretion--this is not a very secure foundation for civil liberties. This--not the privacy issue--is the real problem that has to be addressed.

Many of these laws were passed to make some constituent group happy. They were never intended to be enforced, and in a pre-NSA age they were unenforceable. So something like Ethelbert's Law was passed because Ethelbert had some tragic thing happen to him, and therefore anybody who eats crackers while shooting pheasants is a felon. The obvious solution is to just repeal most of these laws--get rid of the nanny state--but that's probably a Utopian dream.

A more practical solution might be to render any data collected by the NSA or comparable government agencies (including, perhaps, the IRS) inadmissible as evidence. Then the gumshoes would have to put their cases together the old-fashioned way. The NSA data could, however, be used for military intelligence and actions, e.g., drone strikes, or arresting illegal combatants. (There are dangers there, too, but they are fewer.)

This issue splits both parties. I disagree with most of my Tea Party friends, such as Rand Paul or Glenn Reynolds. I'm down with Chris Christie on this one. At the same time, my Trotskyist friends, along with much of the progressive Left, agree with Rand Paul or Joel Kotkin.

It makes for strange bedfellows all around.

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