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Michael Chertoff: Big Nanny Is Watching You

In a new book, former Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff argues that unless our legal structures change, the main casualty of the big-data revolution won’t be our privacy—it could be our autonomy.
Michael Chertoff
Michael Chertoff

Future/Present

If this scenario seems far-fetched, consider the combination of things already on the market or in development: facial recognition, automated cars, pervasive closed-circuit TV in many cities, and some companies’ use of bird’s-eye cameras overlooking workstations and voluntary (so far) microchips implanted in employees. Of course, the effects of using any one of these devices may be good or bad. Unfortunately, too often government policy- makers, judges, and everyday consumers poorly understand the consequences of the big data revolution.

The effects of big data collection are playing out faster today than ever before. Information sharing has allowed new technologies to be created at an ever-faster pace. Technologies designed for security and classified by governments now quickly find their way into everyday consumers’ hands. The commercial drive to enhance marketing tools also drives relentless innovation in the ability to collect and exploit data. Because today’s information and networks have so many connection points, it is harder and harder to prevent information from leaking. Information doesn’t disappear readily—it sticks. Taken together, these features of modern information technology have sped up the spread of ideas and our personal information.

As an unintended by-product, however, growing inter- connectivity has had the effect of dramatically increasing threats to our security and privacy. The proliferation of wirelessly connected devices—often mobile—expands the surface area of network entry points through which hackers can penetrate our information and communication net- works. By the same token, the centralized collection of our personal data by government and corporations means it is far easier for hackers to steal that data at a huge scale. So, consider the following recent cyber data threats: Equifax, the credit agency, loses data pertaining to 143 million Americans; Yahoo has 3 billon users’ accounts compromised; and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources agency, has highly sensitive security les relating to over 25 million employees and applicants stolen, perhaps by a foreign nation.

History does show that technological changes bring with them social and normative changes, allowing societies to adapt. So, the development of the automobile led to the adoption of safety requirements and the regulation of traffic patterns. Because in modern democracies people ultimately define the rules that determine or restrict their behavior—the social contract—the rules must adjust to meet the needs of the day. But new technology doesn’t always fit within the existing social construct. Trying to force it into an outdated legal system may even break the system. Eventually people react by demanding fundamental changes to the rules. It falls to elected of officials, administrators, and courts to recognize changed circumstances and then reconstruct legal and policy standards.

When We Lose Control

As the social contract is renegotiated, a return to basic principles and values is necessary. Standing outside the outmoded paradigms and automated legal categories, we must re-determine what our core social and ethical values are. What’s in danger and what needs protection? Often the constitutional principles of liberty, security, freedom of expression and association, and independence must be weighed against each other, possibly with the interests of society balanced against the rights and interests of the individual.

The rise of big data capabilities is often critiqued from the standpoint of loss of privacy. But when technologies collect, catalog, and exploit data—much of which is willingly submitted by people—or when data is collected in open public spaces, then privacy is too narrow a concept to reflect what may be at risk.

What is actually at stake is the freedom to make the personal choices that affect our values and our destiny. A person can be manipulated and coerced in many ways, but the most ominous involve the pressure that comes with constant, ongoing surveillance of our actions. Our parents shape our behavior not only by teaching us as children, but also by the examples they set. They hope to instill strong value systems in their children even as they hope that their children will gain new opportunities, ideas, and experiences to mold them. As we grow older, we have more and more opportunities to choose our own way and explore new ideas.

But that freedom can be undermined when we lose control of information about ourselves—our actions, beliefs, relationships, and even our flaws and mistakes.

Modern analytic tools have the potential to form a detailed picture of almost any individual’s activities. It is extremely difficult today to “opt out” of the data stream. Modern life generates data as a necessary part of the convenient services we enjoy. Information collected today is necessarily broader than what was collected in years past; it lasts longer; and it is put to more uses. But those who collect and aggregate that data have an increased power to influence and even coerce our behavior—possibly through social shaming and financial incentives and penalties.

Today’s explosion of big data is often justified as promoting healthy lifestyles, convenient marketing, and even easier and more informed political engagement. But ubiquitous surveillance is a classic tool of oppression as epitomized by the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, which watches constantly. Are we on the verge of inviting this oppression surveillance into our own lives, albeit in the deceptively benign guise of a “Big Nanny” who watches over us “for our own good”?


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