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The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

'Big Data' impacts how we work, elect our presidents, and play tennis. It also affects the way we're watched.

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The dark side of Big Data concerns Laura DeNardis, Internet scholar, author of three books, and professor at American University's school of communication in Washington. She and others worry – not exclusively – about three questions. Does the new technology (1) erode privacy, (2) promote inequality, and (3) turn government into Big Brother?

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She points to public health data as one potential source of abuse. Her concern echoes that of critics who fear that supposedly anonymous patient records are not anonymous at all. As far back as the 1990s, a Massachusetts state commission gave researchers health data about state workers, believing this would help officials make better health-care decisions. William Weld, then governor of Massachusetts, assured workers their files had been scrubbed of the data that could identify them.

One Harvard University computer science graduate student took this promise of privacy as a challenge. Using just three bits of data, Latanya Sweeney showed how to identify everyone – including Weld, whose diagnoses, medications, and entire medical history Ms. Sweeney, now a professor at Harvard, gleefully sent to his office.

Today there are far more powerful ways to identify people from records supposed to keep things private. And there are concerns other than our health records. Dr. DeNardis worries about how much companies know about our social media habits.

"Take a look at the published privacy policies of Apple, Facebook, or Google," she says. "They know what you view, when you make a call, where you are. People consent to that by selecting 'I agree' to privacy terms. But how carefully are they read?"

She's not alone. Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union describes one example of what companies can do with what they know about us: "credit-scoring."

"Credit card companies," he wrote in a blog, "sometimes lower a customer's credit card limit based on the repayment history of other customers at stores where a person shops."

Do we want Master Card to lower our credit-card limits, thinking we're a risk, just because people who frequent the stores we do don't pay their bills?

In addition to individual privacy, critics worry about Big Data's impact in more expansive ways, such as the growing gap between rich and poor nations. Large American companies can hire hundreds of data analysts. How can Bangladesh compete? Will this aggravate the global digital divide?

Perhaps most worrisome to people at the moment is the government's use of Big Data to monitor its own citizens, or others, in the name of national security. "The American people," President Obama said a few days after the NSA story broke, "don't have a Big Brother who is snooping into their business."

Did Obama mean George Orwell's term doesn't include governments secretly monitoring calls, e-mails, audio, and video of citizens suspected of nothing? Commandeering information from firms like Yahoo and Google?

The questions that arose from Snowden's revelations in June encompass issues of privacy, confidentiality, freedom, and, of course, security. The Obama administration argues that monitoring personal information keeps the country safe, asserting that PRISM has helped foil 54 separate terrorist plots against the US.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill dispute that number, though, and in recent weeks momentum has been building in Washington to rein in the NSA. Not only has support increased on the left and right to adopt more oversight of its surveillance program, polls show a hardening of public opinion about snooping, too.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt about the fury in other countries when the news broke – especially in Germany, where critics have compared American monitoring of foreigners' phone calls and e-mails with that of Stasi, the former hated East German secret police.


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