For a little while at least, social media seemed to be a great emancipator – fomenting revolutions and eliminating gatekeepers.
Data purports to a similar impact. Evangelists describe a world with better decision making, less lumping us in together. Over the past year I’ve interviewed a tonne of Australian data startups, using their datasets for everything from appraising creditworthiness to offering location-based deals and fine-tuning product. That the previously uncreditworthy could get relief through new data is great.
But there’s another side to this coin.
The Economist recently had a superb special report on how data is changing politics. There was the usual stuff about campaigns using data to fine tune messaging, and directly target voters. More alarming was the new tools governments are getting in prediction and analysis.
“In the case of protest movements, the waves of collective action leave a big digital footprint. Using ever more sophisticated algorithms, governments can mine these data. That is changing the balance of power. In the event of another Arab spring, autocrats would not be caught off guard again because they are now able to monitor protests and intervene when they consider it necessary.”
There’s been a lot of hype about meta data and governments breaking encryption. And this is serious. As researchers have shown, just the meta data on the envelopes of American revolutionaries could have helped the British round up Paul Revere.
But imagine what malicious governments can get up to with real-time data mining of what we put out on social media. Would the Arab Spring or Occupy ever have surfaced if the government was monitoring sentiment, just waiting to crush?
“Governments that were digitally blind when the internet first took off in the mid–1990s now have both a telescope and a microscope.”
I really recommend reading the entire special report.