Daviel Lazure Vieira

Are we getting closer to the world of “Big Brother” described in George Orwell’s novel 1984? Whether through phone calls, text messages or our search history on the Internet, we always leave a digital trail behind us. Our movements, habits and preferences are tracked everywhere we go, and the collection of this information—called “big data”—has major implications for all of us.

Recorded in front of a live audience at the Munk School of Global Affairs earlier this week, experts met on May 9 and 10 to discuss the world of big data as part of the Munk School’s collaboration with CBC Radio One’s show Ideas. The debates, to be broadcast on June 23 and 30 to a potential audience of 1.2 million people across Canada and the U.S., were moderated by the school’s director, Stephen Toope.

Security and privacy were at the heart of the discussion on both nights. Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert remarked that big data is the consequence of a radical shift in the way we interact with each other, and with our governments. “We turned our digital lives completely inside out,” said Deibert. “And as our lives have changed, so did state institutions, which have turned inwards and are now looking at us to connect the dots by collecting all the dots.”

The usual dilemma between national security and privacy as a zero-sum game is a flawed proposition, argued Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. “There’s no reason why the government should have routine access to the day-to-day activities we engage in. It has a direct impact on our ability to create, to innovate. A sense of surveillance inhibits our sense of freedom.”

Ashkan Soltani, independent researcher and former chief of technology for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, warned that big data could also reinforce existing biases—not always intentionally, but sometimes by virtue of a simple algorithm. We have already seen examples of automated discrimination: a study shows that Google searches for African-American names are more likely to bring up adverts suggestive of “arrests,” for instance. The assumption made by data that “correlation is causation” should be challenged, Soltani argued.

Neil Desai from Magnet Forensics, a software company working with law enforcement and national security agencies, pointed out that the government too must adapt itself to the digital age. “The challenge we are faced with when it comes to the way societies organize themselves also applies to criminal activity. Crime is moving online, and state organizations have to learn how to deal with this new kind of threat.”

From a business standpoint, the idea of tracking consumers is old—compiling and measuring data has always been an important component of business research and development to promote innovation. And while some of that information can be useful in developing tools and practices that make us more efficient, it could also hurt workers and consumers in the long run, says Anita McGahan, associate dean of research at the Rotman School of Management and Munk School professor. No matter how advanced the technology is, McGahan explained, big data can hardly account for the human factor in our social relationships. “We have to think about ways to make our non-commercial lives more meaningful, and use the tools that are available in order to have better lives, not just to consume more stuff.”

John Weigelt, national technology officer for Microsoft Canada pointed out big data risks that enterprises face. Data breaches, for instance, raise scepticism and lower a consumer’s trust. “When we blame technology for manmade mistakes, we try to simplify the world around us and as a result we get scared,” said Weigelt.

The panel agreed that while big data can foster creativity, we need to keep a watchful eye to ensure a less Orwellian future. “We need more hackers,” Deibert concluded. “Hacking was originally about stimulating a spirit of curiosity instead of accepting technology at face value. To me, that’s a civic imperative we must encourage.”

Part one of the Big Data discussion will air on CBC Radio One on June 23. Listen online at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas

May 12, 2016