BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR
I asked Thomas Thurston, the data scientist featured in our May issue, to comment on the uproar surrounding PRISM, the code name for the NSA's massive data-collection program, recently exposed in documents leaked by federal contractor Edward Snowden.
Here are my questions, followed by Thurston's email response.
OB: You use big data to benefit business. But how would you articulate the relationship between Big Data and political surveillance? Are the two natural bedfellows? there any lesson or insight to be gleaned about Big Data in the aftermath of the Snowden episode?
Thurston: Scientific discovery is like 'the force' in Star Wars – it can be used for good or bad. On its own, data science and 'big data' are neutral. They allow humanity to do things it couldn't before. This is great when it comes to curing disease and stopping crime, but it can also raise difficult social issues as we're seeing now.
The prime example is when Target used big data to determine a teenage girl was probably pregnant. They started sending her coupons and ads for babies, causing her father to storm into a Target store and give a wicked scolding to the manager on duty. A little while later the father went back to Target and apologized after going home to learn his daughter actually was pregnant and hadn't told him yet. Big data knew his daughter was pregnant before he did! That's a great example of how big data is powerful, but can also be a little creepy.
Big data is about getting more data and learning from it more effectively. Privacy is about not sharing your data and stopping people from learning about you. In this way, the two (big data and privacy) are natural adversaries. They are two extremes. Both are important and, with 90% of the world's data created in the last 2 years alone, we're the first generation in the history of the world to deal with the tension at anything close to this level of scale. The entire Library of Alexandria could fit in your iPhone. It's an exciting world indeed, but also a little scary.
Obviously society will have to strike a balance between information and privacy. That said, as a data scientist who studies business I see that as fertile ground for opportunity. The future is ripe for business models to help us benefit from big data while maintaining our privacy. It's a terrific place to invest.
Linda Baker keeps tabs on CEO and public policy issues.