Sunday, June 09, 2013

PRISM: Big Data and Pre-Crime

Fantastic Universe, February 1956:
Pride of my Collection
In February 1956, the Science Fiction magazine Fantastic Universe published a short story from a young writer called Philip K Dick, called The Minority Report.  Stephen Spielberg made a fine movie of the story in 2002, the latest in a series of Dick's stories to be converted to the screen, including Blade Runner and Total Recall.  Dick's account of bureaucrats predicting when people were likely to commit crimes - and arresting them before they did - was extraordinarily prescient.

I blogged about the recent Guardian revelations about NSA monitoring of phone records and internet activity over at Brazen Thoughts the other day.  I mentioned that privacy - such as we have come to know it - simply does not exist online.  It cannot exist, because the internet, big data, and probability mathematics mean that privacy, or awareness (as its imperfect antonym) is no longer absolute, but rather a mathematical function.  This means that one has a probability of identity; that you do not know the name of a person who is engaged in various communications does not mean that you don't know who they are, only that the probability of their identity is slightly reduced.  Not only that, but the object of the exercise of big data in itself is not identity per se, but of intent.  So just as advertisers are interested in finding people who intend to buy stuff, the NSA is interested in finding people who intend to blow stuff up.

The analysis of digital activity online can yield patterns of behaviour that indicate - to a greater or lesser degree - the extent to which people are likely to behave in the future.  This is what the NSA (and advertisers) are after. Which is just like the 'precogs' in the short story / movie Minority Report, in the Department of Pre-Crime. Spooky stuff - literally.  Incidentally, a few years ago I managed to acquire a copy of the original magazine where the story was published, from all of 67 years ago.  I pick it up every now and then; it still sends a shiver down my spine.

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