Blog Post

Big Data: From My Dog to Murder

I’m cut and dry when it comes to big data analytics condensing me into a few key labels. Just a quick swipe through my Instagram feed, two main types of photos stand out: my new puppy and my travel photos. I've never been one to post selfies, but if I see a killer view, it's going on social media (to an extent - it's so important to look beyond the camera lens!). True to form, Facebook gives me sidebar ads for Petsmart and cheap airlines. I realized that I am truly Facebook's ideal user in terms of advertising because I click on those ads when they're convincing enough. $10 off dog food? Massive holiday sales on flights? I'm clicking.

I like to use the location tags on Instagram when possible, especially with my nature photos. Because I've posted quite a few photos of France and Spain, I actually get ads in French and Spanish; whenever I'm watching NBC online, I get a NyQuil ad in Spanish. Big data all gets muddled together because it is hard to say whether this trilingual advertising method is strictly based off my photos on social media, but I'm sure that information is going somewhere. I would say it's actually an effective form of advertising because when I'm watching something in English and hear French, my ears perk up and I'm aware of the change and therefore am paying attention to the ad.

My other photos are a mixture of my boyfriend, family, and friends. Facebook and Instagram like to combine all these factors when advertising to me. Mixing travel and my relationship, I get ads about romantic bed and breakfasts, though I've never been to one in my life. Mixing my dog and my friends, I get ads about bars in Raleigh that allow dogs (for those interested, Raleigh Brewing Company does!).

The ads to Instagram are relatively new with the "Sponsored" images starting to appear more frequently on news feeds. However, when I post to Instagram, it shares automatically to Facebook (in retrospect, I can't believe I gave the rights to Facebook to see my Instagram and vice versa - that's so much personal information). So even though I post primarily on Instagram, Facebook is aware of where I go, who I'm with (hello facial recognition feature on Facebook), and what I'm currently shopping for.

Because my ads are so customized, it would be fairly simple for an advertising agency to peg who I am. There’s software out there measuring every move I make, hoping they can put me in another box. Bought hiking boots? “Outdoorsy.” Bought drinks every Wednesday at Rum Runners? “College Student.” In high school, my iPhone said I had two “home” locations based on where I spent a lot of time: “Child of Divorce.” With all this data, they can make further assumptions or use me to further political agendas. Based on the fact that I’m an outdoorsy college student, they might assume I’m a democrat and all of a sudden, I get an influx of democratic candidate paraphernalia in the mail. I truly wish I could see all the boxes they’ve checked next to my name, to laugh a little at the embarrassing stuff and to be slightly creeped out at the tiny intricacies they know about my life.

While we all strive for individuality in the “real world,” does it really bother me that I’m grouped into little labels with my data? Personally, not really. For me, it is convenient, especially since, most of the time, who they peg me as is so unbelievably accurate. However, I don’t appreciate them selling who they think I am to large companies. Why should someone get to profit off of me? Especially because I don’t know what they’re selling or who they’re selling to, thinking about everyone’s big data footprints worries me almost as much as thinking about everyone’s ecological footprints (See “Outdoorsy,” above).

I’ve watched enough Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to know that if you’re going to do something illegal or that you don’t want traced, you can’t post anything online, send anyone a message, or Google any questions; “they” have a way to track that down. For example, my mom had to testify in court for a murder trial because one of her employees was the accused and they had my mom speak about the results they found on his computer (he had been researching the human anatomy in the days prior to the incident).

They use predictive analytics to guess actions before they happen (essentially what the FBI does with counter-terrorism) and on a smaller, less important scale, they use it to sell me stuff while I peruse the Internet. In every casino, there is a guy wearing sunglasses counting cards and, now, at every race track, there is a guy using software to pick the fastest horse using data collected from every horse race and every vet record. Should this be considered legal? It’s beneficial to sports teams during recruiting but their downfalls when it comes to the spread of the game. Is it likely the same to my life: a benefit and a fallback?

Returning back to the darker side of big data uses, I’m really intrigued by the use of data mining and predictive analytics in terms of solving crimes. When perusing the websites for different police department’s crime analytics webpages, a common quote appeared: “Why just count crime, when you can predict it?” The massive influxes of data that police labs receive per case is astounding, but all of that data is adding up. We’ve reached the point in technology where detectives can enter a few, key details and their software calculates likely scenarios and important notes. Obviously, the software has very precise algorithms but it is also constantly learning from all the information the police are entering on a daily basis. As more cases are solved, the software re-evaluates the likelihood of scenarios and details to help solve future cases more swiftly and accurately.

While all of this seems great for a happy and safe world, what if all this data is made public? As we discussed earlier, who has the right to the data? Is it the police force as a country who can access it or, because police departments are governmental programs, should the data collected be accessible to the public as well? Like all things in big data, this major pro has its con attached if the “average Joe” can delve into this database. The same criminals the police force would be working to catch could be researching giveaways in murder investigations or trying to find loopholes in the system.  However, this is where it gets a little complicated because there could be a sort of flagging system developed and the police could look into the individuals who seem to be getting in depth with their system.

Like most big data issues, there isn’t a clear answer. How much data should I be allowed to see as a person with zero security clearance while sitting at home? What if that data is about me? Obviously there are two different scales discussed here: my personal, naïve life and then a national security argument but they both have the same complications and ethical implications. Just as Facebook knows exactly which ads to use on my news feed, the police software knows exactly the angle of a knife cut based on blood splatter measurements. Both have different uses and different companies interested in purchasing said data, but it’s questionable if either have the right to.


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