September 21, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The way companies and governments collect and use information about you is changing rapidly ...


A new revolution is slowly rearing its head as an ever increasing barrage of personalised adverts begins to follow us around the web. For some it may be ‘single girls in your area’; for others, that unaffordable, lusted-after item that you simply must have. Either way, the advertisers are coming for you.

This targeting is conducted by a wide range of organisations that have begun to ‘mine’ our data, including the websites we have frequented and the places we have visited, and to use it to make predictions about our future. They then use these predictions to identify what we might be most tempted by and to target their adverts accordingly. Such vast amounts of data are now being collected that it cannot be processed by conventional database systems – complex new methods are required for its interpretation. This data and the processes used to comprehend it are both referred to as ‘Big Data’.

The adverts may be a little annoying and a tad divisive, but the really intriguing aspect of Big Data is trying to predict where it’s headed next. This is one question to which no one really knows the answer. Big Data may well change the landscape in fields as diverse as the search for aliens and finding a cure for cancer. But one thing is for certain: as we move in to the future, the privacy and ethical concerns surrounding the use of our data will grow.

Take for example, crime fighting. You may have seen in a recent Horizon documentary, Age of Big Data, how a police department in America is using Big Data to predict where on their patch the next crime will happen, by accumulating all the data about crimes in the area over the past several years. This by itself doesn’t sound particularly concerning ethically, but combine this with the ability to generate a pool of potential suspects and to predict each of their movements for the next 24 hours (a feat that is already possible thanks to research from the University of Birmingham), and criminals of the future may be identified in advance of a crime that they have not yet committed, on the say-so of a computer. Sound familiar? That’s because the plot of the 2002 box office hit Minority Report concerned just this eventuality (although psychic ‘precogs’ take the place of huge police databases). Thanks to Big Data, it looks as if ‘PreCrime’ could beat hoverboards in the race to reality.

You may think you are safe from the perils of Big Data as a law-abiding citizen, but think how Big Data could affect hospital treatments in the future. As medicine moves into a personalised era, where decisions are made on the basis of our unique genetic code, what if the ‘computer says no’ when asked if you are a good candidate for life-saving surgery? Surgeons are reputed to be fiercely protective of their procedure success rates, so if the data warns them that you may be a risky candidate, would they take the chance? No one really knows what the future holds for Big Data. It will surely provide us with a multitude of benefits we can’t even conceive of yet, but nonetheless, the potential ethical implications may be just as great.


IMAGES: Jeroen Bennink; freefotouk