Big Data Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself

George Orwell may have imagined a world of total surveillance, but even his fertile imagination and acute understanding of totalitarianism did not foresee a world where the citizens demand, purchase, install, and configure devices to conduct the bulk of the surveillance on themselves and others. He also did not foresee the incestuous — if sometimes less-than-harmonious — relationship between government and business that would bring about the surveillance state. In the digital age, we have a state of total (or near total) surveillance that makes 1984 look like child’s play.


In the digital age, there is no line of demarcation between digital privacy and any other privacy, between digital liberty and any other liberty. After all, if you have no choice about the data that is collected on you and who has access to it — including your phone calls, texts, e-mails, browsing history, calendar, and more — can you really be said to be free?
With both overreaching three-letter government agencies and nosy corporations working daily to increase their ability to spy on any and all, the degree to which most residents of planet Earth are spied upon is growing exponentially. And — even more than three years after the Snowden reveal — most of the subjects of that surveillance still have little idea how it works or why it matters. Data-mining and data-analysis work hand-in-hand to create a startlingly accurate picture of the lives of nearly everyone. How accurate are those pictures? Consider this small example from a previous article:


In 2012, a father of a teenage girl saw for himself how powerful this form of information gathering and analysis can be. Several years ago, Target department stores started offering Redcard. It’s a credit or debit card that can be used to make purchases at Target stores and on their website. It offers a five-percent discount any time it is used. Target’s reason for doing this is simple. It ties all of your purchases together into one profile for data-analysis purposes so that they can send you advertising based on not just what you buy, but what their data analysis tells them you are going to buy. How effective is it? The father of that teenager stormed into a store outside Minneapolis and demanded to know why his daughter was receiving advertisements for baby clothes, baby furniture, and diapers. After all, she is still in high school. The manager said he would look into it and call the father in a day or so. When he called two days later, the father said that he had talked with his daughter and learned that she was, indeed, pregnant. Target figured it out before her own father did.


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