Hands up if you’ve heard the term Big Data. Keep your hand up if you understand the impact Big Data is having on your life. If your hand is still up, you probably either work for Cambridge Analytica, or you are kidding yourself. The implications of Big Data are so immense that even the data science industry doesn’t yet know everything that’s possible with this technology.
The world is reeling from revelations that, between them, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shamelessly exploited the data of millions of users, in an apparently successful attempt not just to profit from our data, but to manipulate our behaviour. While we explicitly agree to hand our data over to Facebook when we sign up, for alarmingly unrestricted purposes, in this case the culprit was actually a harmless-seeming personality quiz. If your friend did the quiz, they ticked a box allowing that quiz to access your information. Back then, Facebook privacy settings gave you no way to opt out of that kind of access.
From around 320,000 users taking the test, Cambridge Analytica wound up with access to the Facebook data of more than 50 million people. So if you were on Facebook back then, your data is very likely in Cambridge Analytica’s database.
I used to think this kind of thing wasn’t a big deal. “I treat everything I put on Facebook as public anyway. I have nothing to hide. I don’t care who has my data.” But it turns out that it’s not what they know about you, but what they do to you with that knowledge that counts. First Facebook was used to show you ads you were more likely to be interested in. Again, people found this mildly creepy at times, but not overly disturbing. Sometimes it was even useful – for example, showing you ads for cars when you were looking to buy a new one.
But recently Facebook data usage has taken a rather more alarming direction. In the 2016 US election, that data was used in an attempt to encourage some people to vote, and discourage others, by showing them highly targeted ads and memes. Such intensely personalised advertising might also be enough to sway undecided voters one way or another.
From shopping to voting, our data is a weapon we haven’t even begun to understand, and it is pointed squarely at us. At our wallets. At our democracies. At our children.
We rely on governments to regulate industries to ensure that they operate in the best interests of our societies, and yet we see time and time again that technology moves a lot faster than justice. From tobacco to big oil, profits come before social benefit every time. And in the case of Big Data, our politicians seem to either be struggling to understand the implications, or disturbingly eager to exploit them. Either way, our society is on the line.
Big Data is only going to get bigger, and better at controlling us. To fight that, we need to first understand it. And that’s why I started the Australian Data Science Education Institute – a registered charity supporting the introduction of data science in schools. Because the more our kids understand about data science, the more they’ve learnt about the ethics of it, the implications of it, and how the technology actually works, the better equipped they will be to control its impact on their lives. If we can teach kids to manage, analyse, and communicate data effectively, they will be able to participate in informed conversations about the way data is used, both for and against us.
In other news, in 2016 Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth wrote this in a company memo: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.” This highlights another reason why data science education needs to become ubiquitous. At present the tech industry is, far too often, run by people with a cowboy hacker mentality who believe in growth at any cost. We need to take over the industry by increasing diversity, because increased diversity leads to more people willing to take a stand and say, “Hang on a minute. That’s wildly unethical.” – something our tech industry currently only seems to do when public outcry makes any other response a share market nightmare.
How do we increase diversity? By teaching all of our kids data science and tech skills, and showing them that, in fact, anyone can do this stuff. You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, and you don’t have to have been programming since birth. You just need to learn the skills.
This is how we change the world: by empowering our kids to ensure that data is used for us, not against us.
Dr Linda McIver is executive director and founder of the Australian Data Science Education Institute.