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WANG: Big data could have serious implications

Opinions Column: A Third Person Perspective

Technology has been a saving grace. From unlimited access to your loved ones regardless of distance, to using Facebook as a tool to notify everyone of your survival from a natural disaster, there is no doubt that technology has increased our ways of communicating in a way that makes us forget that carrier pigeons and landlines were ever a thing. 

But how exactly do all the benefits of technology outweigh the negatives? With companies like Cambridge Analytica proudly stating their harvesting of more than 5,000 data points on more than 230 million American voters on their website, we have allowed our democracy to be determined not by the people, but instead, by the information that corporations have on people. Why does it make us uncomfortable when companies like Cambridge Analytica essentially paste on their foreheads that they offer “the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign,” when these statistics are being sourced from 50 million non-consenting individuals? Where exactly do we draw the line in regard to data-mining? Why do we spring to solve problems after multi-billion dollar corporations have already invaded our privacy instead of setting ethical laws regarding data-mining in the first place?

It almost seems like the growing pace of technology and information accessible to be used for things like driving campaigns makes it hard to play catch-up in regard to creating laws to protect such data, which is a huge problem. Our private information should never be up for grabs — it should never be okay for a corporation to extract our information just because as a country, we have not completely figured out the legalities around this “data-mining culture.” Even though all the information we put online is completely accessible and purchased by third-party companies, their “asking” for permission to use our data does not count if this idea of users relinquishing their privacy is buried under pages and pages of online agreements. 

In an episode of "Parks and Recreation," the community of Pawnee, Indiana suffers from a huge data-mining attack from a parodied form of Google, what the show fictitiously names as Gryzzle. Gryzzle was initially accused of extracting personal information from community members by sending everyone a personalized “gift box” containing highly personal items — it was then revealed that the company was legally allowed to have done so as stated in a sub-footnote hidden in an addendum that reroutes to a revised 27th version of a 500-page contract. 

In the words of Ben Wyatt, a champion of protecting rights no matter how fictitious he is, “A person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multibillion-dollar company.” How laughable is it when a series on Netflix has more to say about your rights to privacy than our own presidential administration who actually hired Cambridge Analytica to get all up in our business?

Colin Koopman’s piece about our democracy’s persistent fight against big data addresses not just the right to privacy, but the creation and implementation of a set of ethics for data, or even regulatory policies and statutory laws that “would also establish cultural expectations, fortified by extensive education in high schools and colleges, requiring us to think about data technologies as we build them, not after they have already profiled, categorized and otherwise informationalized millions of people.”

It almost seems like "Black Mirror" is not just a Netflix show anymore — we literally live in it. No matter how hyperbolic or satirical the show may be, we have arrived at a time and place in our society where we are battling our own president’s hiring of a data company that unauthorized this sourcing of personal information as a fun game of trial and error. This unethical type of data-mining affected more than 50 million social media users, and it should make us question what else is at stake here the next time another company like Cambridge Analytica wants to probe their unwanted selves into our personal, digital lives. As we reach nearly two decades into the 21st century, the lives we lead out in the world and the ones we lead online are becoming one — our two lives, our two presences, are meshing in a way that calls for a serious overhaul of what we know about data-mining and its ethics, because our phones have finally become an extension of us. 

Ashley Wang is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "A Third Person Perspective," runs on alternate Mondays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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