Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Big data 9: redefining the group demographic 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on May 17, 2013

This is my ninth installment in a series on an emerging capability that has become surrounded by hype, even as it has emerged as a powerfully disruptive societal force: big data (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, postings 177 and following for Parts 1-7 and its continuation page, posting 207 for Part 8.)

I began a discussion of how big data serves to redefine and expand the types of hypotheses that can be tested from empirical population data in Part 8, where I offered a societally positive working example. My goal for this series installment is to continue that discussion, here focusing on the types of negative examples that can and do provoke pushback against big data as a developing capability.

• At the end of Part 8 I stated that I would turn here in this posting to consider the ways that “Big Brotherauthoritarian states are coming to use big data to “identify and crush political dissent and open public discussion” and I will at least briefly look into that here.
• But more than that, I will at least begin to look into how a legion of “Little Brothers” such as major corporations can and at times do misuse big data capabilities too, and certainly when their policies and practices for collecting, organizing, using and commoditizing individually identifying and tagged information puts them at odds with the needs and wishes of the people they develop all of this big data content from.

But I begin here with Big Brother, and I begin that by making a basic foundational observation:

• Governments that accumulate big data about their own nationals and about foreigners who interact with them, with a specific goal of tracking them to control them – governments that play a true Big Brother role, do this as a perceived survival requirement, and not out of intentionally malicious or evil intent. “Malicious” and “evil” are traits that might be attributed to them, but they are not ones that they would embrace or accept as accurately applying to them. They do this out of perceived overriding need.

And with that in mind, I turn to consider the People’s Republic of China as a first working example.

• China is widely known, at least in the West for its Great Firewall – its Golden Shield Project as it is more officially called there. But this should only be seen as one half of a larger and more comprehensive system, as simply tracking the online conversation and blocking or allowing online access can only be seen as half of a solution to controlling and managing their population so as to stifle the possibility of dissent.
• The other half of this comes from knowing who is doing what online and off and in being able to predict who might do what, and with tracking online activity attempted and pursued only constituting a small part of that. This other half is where China’s one allowed Party and its government seek to in effect predictively know their entire population and on both a fine-meshed population demographic basis, and on an individual basis.
• This approach to population management at a demographic and individual level goes back much farther than do computer systems or computerized databases, of course but the advent of those systems have made it possible to know and to predict with a level of detail and at both levels, never previously even conceivable let alone possible.
• Publically and openly, big data systems development are still in a relatively early stage in China with the bulk of this activity appearing to be taking place in their internet industry, with for example, companies such as Taobao, Tecent Holdings and Baidu developing big data applications on open source software frameworks. Financial sector institutions and others are also beginning to actively, publically enter this arena in China too now.
• And of course, China’s big data objectives go far beyond simply accumulating data about individuals and population groups. They are also collecting data about and from businesses and organizations, private sector and public and of all sorts too. And some of this also has a more public face as well.
• Here, it is crucially important to remember that the boundary between China’s true private sector with its privately owned businesses on one hand, and its government and government owned enterprises on the other is porous and hazy at best, and not just from the way that its People’s Liberation Army controls and even directly owns a larger share of China’s overall business and industrial sectors than any other participant. So in a fundamental sense, China’s private sector big data initiatives are governmental big data initiatives too. And that government can and does collect together as much as it can from all of these data accumulators and processors and more for its own use too.
• China’s government is still, by all appearances, at an early state in developing a Big Brother big data capability but that is clearly one of their highest priority information technology and knowledge management systems goals. I expect to see more and more of that news story to come out as these capabilities continue to be developed and put in place.

And what China is doing, others are at least attempting to do too, and that in at least embryonic stages of development includes initiatives arising in countries such as Iran and North Korea too.

• Whenever you find a country is developing or seeking to develop its own counterpart to China’s Golden Shield Project, you can be sure it is also at least planning and prioritizing for building a matching computer systems-based big data population oversight and control capability too.

But with that said, I would argue that the “Little Brothers” of corporate big data accumulation and use, as noted above at the top of this posting are going to at least collectively be both more pervasive and more impactful than any of their perhaps more visible Big Brother counterparts. And while Big Brother does this for survival, Little Brother does this for profit. I am going to look into the issues of Little Brother in my next series installment, there focusing on concerns that have continuously seemed to have arisen regarding Facebook and its development and use of big data. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and its continuation page.

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