The blogs keep pouring in on articles written about large companies and their extensive data mining to produce accurate marketing strategies. Now like the juggernaut companies, the U.S. government has begun to look into starting its own data mining endeavors, not to sell us the latest espresso maker, but instead to protect our nation.
America’s interest to implement this vastly popular business application is chronicled in a recent article, “Government Aims to Build a ‘Data Eye in the Sky’” written by New York Time’s John Markoff. In the article Markoff explains how America would use web searches, twitter, facebook, and digital location generated by cellphones to predict human behavior in regard to predicting political crises, rebellion, revolution, and various kinds of social and economic imbalance. Currently, a private intelligence agency is constructing a three-year experiment in 21 Latin American countries to track communication, consumption, and population movement through the harvesting of “big data”. The experiment is going to utilize public data which includes information from web searches, internet usage, financial market indicators, traffic cams, and changes in Wikipedia. Interestingly enough this experiment is financed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity or IARPA which part of the director’s office of national intelligence. This project is designed to be completely technical that excludes human intervention. Its goals are to be a “data eye in the sky” to look over political and economic events. It also will be equipped with the availability to look into and predict various pandemics.
The author mentions, however, that these actions are certainly stirring up a lot of controversy. The most prominent concern is arising from scholars like David Price of St. Martin’s University who can’t help but think back to the Total Information Awareness plan that the U.S. government tried to enforce in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Other concerns lie in the lack of human involvement in analyzing data and plausible effect on the human brain to properly problem solve with a fully automatic data analyzer. Still opposition even refers back to the 1960s with Project Camelot. Project Camelot’s main focus was in Chile and was designed to predict rapid changes and offer ways to avoid rebellion. The author explains how this was swiftly shut down by scholars who believed it would “compromise their professional ethics”.
Despite heavy oppositions on similar operations in the passed the author mentions how scholarly acceptance of “total information” projects has increased. He cited Sandy Pentland of M.I.T. who finds this and similar project as, “hopeful rather than scary”. The author suggests that many scholars like Pentland feel the same way.
Markoff’s article was very informative and weaved the various opinions about America’s ideas to inch toward a “total information” analysis of social trends to predict uproar in civilizations. It’s interesting to note, however, that America has done similar projects like this before as shown by Markoff in his explanations of Project Camelot and Total Information Awareness.
I believe that projects like the one being funded by IARPA are good in the sense that we are making conscious strives to better the world around us utilizing the latest technology. However, a fully automated system without human interference in analyzing trends is a scary notion. With an automated system in place where does a human’s inclination to problem solve go? A full reliance on machinery to make decisions about humanity will soon be forcing us to make decisions cluttered with data and algorithms as explanations without a knowledge of a fundamental truth to back-up the decision that math could provide. I believe decisions the government makes should be a combination of data analysis as well as human interaction rather than a fully automated system.
That being said I want to make it clear that the government isn’t pushing such technology on us; we are pushing it on ourselves. As mentioned at the beginning of the blog, many large companies are using data mining to hone in on trends to precisely target their products to the right people. Of course these companies are tapping into our lives in a very legal manner because its individuals that are openly revealing their lives for people to view publically on social media sites. Like the large companies the government shows interest in doing similar activities to spot trends and target rebellions, riots, and social uproar in general. Of course, with it being the government there is opposition and convincing arguments about its effects on human development. However, as explained in Markoff’s article, compared to similar projects in the past this has received considerably less opposition and has many scholars actually praising it. This reinforces the fact that citizens, not the government, are pushing these kinds of projects mirrored by the acceptance of putting much of our personal life on publicly viewed sites for everyone to see.