Two weeks into the Data Information Technologies and Applications [DITA] module and I am just beginning to get a sense of the data I am shedding everywhere I go. The smartphone in my pocket. The Fitbit on my wrist. The Oyster and credit cards in my wallet. I realise that I am leaking a flood of data – about who I am, where I go, what I like, who I like – and that I have only a little power over who can access this and how they use it.
The implications of big data on so many aspects of our lives in this hyperhistorical age remains opaque. But other outcomes are clear. Vote Leave’s targeted Facebook ads during the Brexit campaign in the UK. The election hacking by Russia of the US 2016 presidential election.
The ability of political parties – or foreign governments – to target a specific voter with just the right message at just the right time to push them to vote, or not vote, is truly staggering. A recent Channel 4 investigation uncovered how in 2016 Trump’s campaign came up with a strategy to deter millions of black Americans from voting.
Examples like those mentioned above make me think that big data is surely a threat to democratic norms and civil liberties. And then I remember that in The Fourth Revolution, Luciano Floridi describes himself as an optimist. I take a deep breath and try to remember that data is just data. If there are negative implications, we must try to circumvent them. I try to focus on the positive.
So, the Fitbit on my wrist?
Yes, this provides me with information about my daily activity. It can tell me how many steps I am walking, how many calories I am burning, how well – or not well – I might be sleeping. It can even, thanks to the movement reminder function, prompt me to get up and take a walk.
But in 2015, data from a Fitbit was used by US police in Connecticut to help solve a murder. Richard Debate told police that on 23 December a masked assailant broke into his home and shot and killed his wife. Data provided by the Fitbit his wife was wearing when she died completely invalidates that story.
Debate has since been charged with his wife’s murder and is currently standing trial, with a Superior Court judge ruling earlier this year that the prosecution can use the data – now “evidence” – from the Fitbit.
What other new technologies have unexpected applications?
Ancestry DNA tests have become big business in recent years. These too have a law enforcement application. In fact, the apprehension of the Golden State Killer in 2018, after more than 40 years, was down to big data and new information science applications – what Floridi calls small patterns.
Using DNA recovered from one of the crime scenes, investigators managed to find the killer’s great-great-great-grandparents, ultimately tracing thousands of relatives who were alive today. After painstaking research, cross-checking suspects by age, location and even eye colour, those thousands of relatives were winnowed down to hundreds, then dozens, then one man: Joseph James DeAngelo. He has since pleaded guilty to 13 counts of first-degree murder and dozens of rapes.
Since then, dozens of crimes have been solved using the same techniques. Although new privacy rules in the US mean that ancestry enthusiasts will have to opt-in to allow police access, one recent study showed that more than 90% of Americans support the use of genealogy databases to solve violent crimes.
Is this the next stage of law enforcement? Teams of maverick genealogists and information scientists working around the clock at police stations across the country to track down someone’s second or third cousin. If crimes are solved, I won’t complain. And I look forward to the inevitable television show, CSI: Big Data.