You wake up, and the first thing you do is check your smartphone. Log into your email. Check your Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) notifications. Read the news, check if your Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) order has shipped, maybe watch a cat video on youtube.
Everywhere you click, there are little bits of code from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), from Facebook, from invisible third-party data collectors, even the US government, that are following your every move.
We are living in a surveillance society, a society where online records of your actions are combined with offline public records to create a jigsaw puzzle of millions of bits of data that can now be pieced together to form an almost-complete picture of who you are. Ever heard of Big Data? Some of the largest U.S. companies and government agencies -- and some you haven't heard of -- are compiling and analyzing all of these small slices of information to amass what is now known as Big Data, which can be used to make guesses about what you want to buy, read, do and whether you're a potential criminal or terrorist, among many other things.
Individual bits of information might not be all that valuable in themselves, says Solon Barocas, a NYU PhD student currently working on a dissertation on inductive analysis, which involves drawing logical conclusions about people from Big Data. But when these bits are compiled, it's a whole different story, he said.
"[Such data analytic techniques] might begin to make predictions or guesses about additional things they haven't observed," said Barocas.
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One of the most worrying results of interacting with an internet that anticipates your interests is that you end up in a bubble−a social newsfeed populated by stories that your various social networks think that you will would rather read, ads that you are more likely to click on−a bubble of content that is designed to reinforce your view of society.
Eli Pariser, author of "The Filter Bubble" outlines exactly what the dangers are of a society full of individuals all living in their own personal bubbles in his book.
Living in a filter bubble "closes us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information" and "creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists," according to Pariser, who defines a filter bubble as "that personal ecosystem of information that's been catered by these algorithms."
There are more prosaic implications of living in a world that is beginning to function at the dictates of Big Data analytics.
It allows for practices like price discrimination, offering coupons or discounts to certain consumers but not others. Or academic profiling, where students' futures are mapped out by increasingly sophisticated "aptitude" algorithms. Or insurance premiums (auto, home, etc., but not health) that are based on Big Data risk profiles.
It can be especially unnerving for those who don't understand why another person with a seemingly identical resume was picked for a job instead of them, or why they were passed up for that promotion. With Big Data analytics in the picture, it could be any number of seemingly innocuous bits of personal information, when combined, indicated that one candidate is preferable to another, said Barocas.
"It tends to have this reinforcing effect where what you've done in the past is presumed to be what you want to do in the future," he said.