Big Data’s Watchful Eye
The Rise of Data Surveillance
The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.
You are being watched. Surveilled. Tracked. Targeted. Every search on the internet recorded.2
Every purchase at the store documented.3
Every place you travel mapped.4
They know how fast you drive, your preferred cereal, your dress size. They know your financial situation, all of your past jobs, your credit limit.5
They know your health concerns, reading preferences, and political voting patterns. They also know your secrets. They have been watching for years.6
In truth, you live in a surveillance state. The watchers know you because of the data you leave behind.
But it is not just you. These watchers also know about your family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, clubs, and associates. They see the circles you contact, the friends you ignore, and the political issues you embrace. They see you as part of a group, but they also see all the other parts of the group.7
Links expand outward, so that all of your contacts can be visualized as a web of interrelated, interconnected groups.
Welcome to the world of big data, where one’s data trail reveals the mosaic of lived experience and has become the currency of a new economy.8
“They” are companies, companies that enable a digital world by offering convenience, information, and services all in return for one thing: data. Your personal data and interests—all of those points of commercial interaction, consumer choice, “likes,” links, and loves—have been vacuumed up, processed, and sold to others wanting to get to know you. Currently, this widespread surveillance remains in the hands of for-profit companies, for the purpose of offering consumers convenience
and choice. But law enforcement is interested too.9
And most of this information is a subpoena (or warrant) away from being part of a criminal case. The investigative lure of big data technologies is just too powerful to ignore.
What Is Big Data?
To understand the potential of big data policing, the scope of big data must be explored. So what is big data? In general, “big data” is a shorthand term for the collection and analysis of large data sets with the goal to reveal hidden patterns or insights.10
A report from the Executive Office of the President summarized: “There are many definitions of ‘big data’ which may differ depending on whether you are a computer scientist, a financial analyst, or an entrepreneur pitching an idea to a venture capitalist. Most definitions reflect the growing technological ability to capture, aggregate, and process an ever-greater volume, velocity, and variety of data.”11
In simple terms, large collections of data can be sorted by powerful computers to visualize unexpected connections or correlations.12
Machine-learning tools and predictive analytics allow educated guesses about what the correlations mean.13
A simple example of how big data works can be seen at Amazon.com. Beneath each item for sale is a recommendation section that displays information about what “customers who bought this item also bought” and items that are “frequently bought together.” Amazon generates these suggestions from the purchasing patterns of its 300 million customers who bought related items. Correlating the historical data of billions of transactions leads to an insight into which goods customers usually purchase together. Amazon, of course, also knows everything you have ever bought from the company. But Amazon can sort the purchasing data of any particular product to show the consumer patterns of all past customers. Amazon can use that large data set to predict what items you might actually want in the future.14
After all, if you bought a coffee maker today, you may need coffee tomorrow.
A more unusual example involves the correlation between Pop-Tarts and hurricanes. Walmart—a company that collects more than two and half petabytes of data every hour from customers15
(equivalent to 50 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text)—discovered that just
before a hurricane, people buy an unusual amount of Strawberry Pop-Tarts.16
Why? No one really knows. Perhaps the reason for the uptick is because Pop-Tarts are nonperishable comfort food, and sometimes sugary comfort is just what you need after a big storm. Or perhaps not. Big data demonstrates the correlation, not the cause. It offers insight without explanation—a reality that is both useful and unsettling.
Obviously, big companies like Amazon and Walmart collect personal data, but what is the extent of big data collection across our daily lives? More than can be comprehended. As Julia Angwin termed it, “We are living in a Dragnet Nation—a world of indiscriminate tracking where institutions are stockpiling data about individuals at an unprecedented pace.”17
The World Privacy Forum—a watchdog group on personal privacy—estimates that there are 4,000 different databases collecting information on us.18
Every time we interact with computers, sensors, smartphones, credit cards, electronics, and much, much more, we leave a digital trail that is revealing of ourselves and valuable to others.19
These are the breadcrumbs of the big data maze. Follow them and they lead right back to you.
Where Does Big Data Come From?
Big data comes from you. You provide the building blocks of big data’s power in small digital bits.
Think of the normal patterns of your life. You probably live in a house or an apartment. Even if you do not live in a wired “smart home” that comes equipped with a “smart fridge” to order milk when you run out, or a Nest “smart thermostat” to turn down the heat when you leave, your home does reveal basic data about your lifestyle.20
You have an address. The address reveals general information about your income (as implied by the cost of the home) and your family size (number of bedrooms). Your zip code provides clues about demographics, wealth, and political sentiment.
You probably get mail at that address. First to note, the United States Postal System runs the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which photographs the exterior of every single piece of mail processed in the United States.21
So data about your address is tracked along with the 150 billion letters mailed each year.22
But more obviously, your mail
also reveals things about you. Magazine subscriptions reveal your political and cultural interests, and catalogues reveal your hobbies and shopping preferences. Mail reveals your friends and associates, just as packages reveal your styles, interests, and lifestyle choices. Even junk mail says something about what marketers think you want.
You likely also use the internet. Some of those packages came from online shopping. Those online retail companies track your purchases and even those things you looked at but did not purchase.23
Inferences from those purchases are also valuable. If you bought infant diapers for the first time, you might also need age-appropriate children’s toys for the next holiday season (and for the next 18 years). If you bought a “how to quit smoking book,” you might not be the best candidate for a new cigar magazine. But you don’t even have to shop to give up your data. Google records every internet search, really every click of the mouse.24
That means every health query, travel question, childrearing tip, news article, and entertainment site. Google and other search engines provide little windows into your thinking (if not your soul). Your internet protocol (IP) provides your exact location,25
and while your IP addresses might change as you switch from your home computer to your iPhone to your work computer, Hotmail knows where you are at all times. Amazon knows the page you stopped reading on your Kindle ebook reader.26
Your cable provider (which may also be your cellphone and wireless provider) knows what TV shows you watch late at night. Netflix and other streaming entertainment services rely on personalized predictive formulas based on past viewing data.
Social media expands the web of data from yourself to your friends and associates.27
On Facebook, you literally display your “likes” of certain things. Professional sites like LinkedIn add more information about what you do, who you know, and what accolades you have received. Personal and social updates broadcast life changes, and charity or community service activities get promoted. Photos provide data about where you have been and who you were with. Geotagging of information from those photos and other services reveal the time, location, and date of the picture.28
Facial recognition links people together, so that your photos (and thus your identity) can be tracked over different social media platforms. And sometimes you might simply tell people on Twitter what you are doing or upload photos of your dinner entrée on Instagram or Snapchat.
You might leave your home in a car—a car registered to your address with a name, gender, birthdate, and identification number. The car can be tracked through a city via surveillance cameras, electronic toll collectors, or automated license-plate scanners.29
Your type of car (hybrid or Hummer) might reveal a lifestyle preference or environmental worldview. The car itself might have Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking through something like a GM OnStar program to allow for instant help in an accident or emergency.30
But that helpful service requires constant locational tracking. Or maybe you have an insurance provider that monitors real-time driving data of your habits in return for lower car-insurance rates.31
You drive carefully, you save money.
But, no matter, if you possess a smartphone with locational services turned on, the speed, location, and direction of your car is being monitored in real time.32
Your iPhone knows a wealth of locational information about where you go, which health clinic you stopped at, and the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting you just attended. Locational data from Google Maps tracks your church attendance, political protests, and friends. Other mobile apps leech data to companies in return for targeted advertisements or travel tips.33
Games, services, geotracking ads, emergency calls—all depend on location. Everything that little pocket computer does can be tracked and recorded in granular detail. That means that every YouTube video, every photograph, and every check of the weather is collected, to reveal the things you do on a daily basis, as well as where you were when you did them.34
Maybe you took that car to work. Your employment history has been harvested by credit agencies.35
Your job, finances, professional history, and even your education are recorded.36
Maybe you went shopping. That customer-loyalty card offering in-store discounts also tracks each purchase you make.37
Stores know not only everything you have purchased going back years but also your physical location when you made the purchase. Maybe you went to the bank. All of your financial information, account balances, late fees, investments, credit history—all are recorded.38
Your credit card stateme...