Could Samsung's new acquisition make it a new player in 'big data'?

On Thursday, the electronics maker said it would buy cloud computing startup Joyent. Big data analysis is a growing field, but has raised civil liberties concerns.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File
A model stands next to a display of Samsung's curved 4K UHD TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2014. The electronics maker said Thursday that it is acquiring cloud-computing startup Joyent in an effort to focus more on Internet of Things devices and big data analysis.

With the acquisition of a cloud computing company called Joyent, the electronics giant Samsung is increasing its emphasis on two growing areas for tech companies – connected Internet of Things devices and so-called “big data” analysis.

The South Korean company said Thursday it would buy Joyent, a startup based in San Francisco that rents out the use of remote computer servers and data centers to other firms, for an undisclosed amount.

Two years ago, the company acquired SmartThings, a start-up that focuses on connected home devices. It introduced a range of devices, including a TV that can monitor a user's home and alert them of problems such as a broken pipe.

The purchase of Joyent will likely further that effort, while the additional computing power provided by Joyent's remote servers could also bolster what the company says will be an increasing focus on the software and services that drive its hardware.

"Big data is going to be a huge initiative for Samsung," Injong Rhee, chief technology officer of Samsung's mobile division, told The Wall Street Journal. "Samsung devices will be increasingly intelligent, and big data is really a key component of intelligence and personalization."

But while big data powers everything from social networks' photo-tagging features to how search engines offer results customized to each user, civil libertarians have often expressed alarm about other ways it can be used.

"Samsung is traditionally focused on hardware, but they do make devices that are in millions of pockets around the world and those devices contain a lot of very personal information in them. And what we're seeing across the corporate world is an effort to monetize that data," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

That's potentially problematic, he says, because the rise of feature-packed mobile devices "can induce people to give up more data about their lives."

Another example of big data analysis is so-called predictive policing, where a computer algorithm uses a variety of crime data to attempt to make a prediction about whether someone is at risk for either becoming a crime victim or an offender.

Such efforts, including software that generates "risk scores" for particular individuals, are touted as objective or neutral.

But the data that is used can be impacted by biases in policing, potentially affecting the analysis that results from it, says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program.

"Crime data that may look accurate or appear neutral is shaped by those historical patterns," she says. For example, the data could be the result of more stops of people of color or reflect information from policing particular neighborhoods.

"And if [a predictive algorithm] learns off of data that bears the hallmarks of discrimination, that will shape what the machine or the algorithm recommends. And it may look sanitized and so people think, 'Well, a computer spat out this data so it can't be biased," Ms. Levinson-Waldman adds.

It's still unclear exactly how Samsung will use the cloud-computing power offered by Joyent, which will keep its management team and its name as it joins the company's mobile division, the Journal reports.

But Microsoft, which offers cloud computing through its Azure platform, has quietly been marketing its technology to law enforcement officials in recent years. Notably, the company has created software that it says can predict whether an inmate is likely to reoffend with 90 percent accuracy.

Samsung's emphasis on Internet of Things devices could also potentially raise privacy concerns. Last year, some users noted that select models of the company's Smart TVs had a feature that kept the TV's microphone on to capture conversations, though the feature could be quickly disabled.

This increasing public debate about privacy through many connected devices could also lead to pushback, says Levinson-Waldman.

Samsung's focus on the Internet of Things and cloud computing wasn't totally unexpected, however.

In 2013, Alfred Boediman, the vice president of the company's research and development division told Mobile World Live that the company planned to focus further on the connected devices, calling its plans "an ambitious effort that Samsung is hoping to eventually sell to other businesses as a connected solution."

But Mr. Stanley of the ACLU views the focus on big data with some hesitation. "I think that a company that is involved in manufacturing devices that people hold so close to their hearts, it behooves them to tread very carefully," he says.

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