While the world focuses on the NSA’s Prism program, there are many other ways that data is being gathered and used that have little to do with phone calls. In cities across the U.S. and in many other countries, every time a car passes cameras along the roadway, license plates are recorded and checked against outstanding warrants and stolen car lists. In Kansas City, they’ve even attached cameras to police cars in what looks like an absurdist cartoon (see photo).
These cameras are cheap and the technology is easy to implement. So easy and cheap, in fact, that the temptation to use them everywhere is powerful. In Tiburon, California, outside San Francisco, the police chief brags that they no longer have car thefts thanks to cameras that capture every single car coming and going from their cozy, rich city.
This use of technology crept up on us, but was given publicity just last week in an American Civil Liberties Union report. There are good reasons the ACLU is paying attention.
Data’s long life
The ACLU recognizes the realities of Big Data where police departments have few restrictions on what to do with that data beyond looking for stolen cars. Few law enforcement people will voluntarily throw out a rich data set that can be used to crack a tough case or spot a problem before it manifests (when a bad guy comes into town).
It’s a very short step to begin taking other data, maybe smartphone geolocation, and combining data into patterns that indicate crime that hasn’t been spotted by a human eye. That’s a whole new way police that fundamentally changes perceptions of civil rights and privacy. What happens when the police can see every move by a union organizer, protester or ordinary citizen going about their business.
While technologists fell in love with the concepts of Big Data, few bothered to figure out how to govern all of that data and its intersection. We grew up in a world of silo’ed data that prevented Big Data’s pattern matching strengths. Today, pattern matching capabilities have arrived without a corresponding change in how data is discovered, stored, accessed and used.
Big Data technology is incredibly powerful but must have its measure of controls for its power not to blow up in our hands.