Big Brother Business on Steroids?

Candace Talmadge |

Welcome to the world of Big Data, that tsunami of information flowing through the Internet from billions upon billions of handheld devices and machines like coffee makers or on-board automobile navigation systems.

Every time we use the Internet to search the web or a cell phone to text or make a call, we contribute to the Big Data deluge.

In an echo of the Internet boom of the late 1990s, companies like Alteryx, mentioned in the first part of this series, are springing up like flowers after a desert rain.

This prompts huge questions with no immediate answers. Will Big Data yield another economic boom like the Internet at the end of the 1990s? Is Big Data a big step toward the end of privacy?

Big Data ultimately will make available information that heretofore was impossible to capture, analyze, or exploit. We know Big Data is hot when a report presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland early in 2012 reclassified data as an asset like gold or oil.

Should not businesses that benefit from the data the rest of us generate compensate us in some way for it? Let’s not hold our breaths waiting for that to happen. So much for being paid a pittance to participate in focus groups or surveys. Big Data may well render these marketing practices moot.

Right now, most of the prognosticating is done by companies that want to sell big data-related services. But since Big Data is all about the numbers, and big business cleaves to numbers like a drunkard hugs his hooch, it won’t be long until these glowing forecasts morph into something more concrete.

And while it may usher in better economic times, Big Data also has the potential to bring Big Brother to life to an extent not even imagined in George Orwell’s worst totalitarian nightmares.

One seemingly mundane Big Data example is a high-end coffee brewer in a kitchen that connects via the Internet to its manufacturer’s servers. Every time its owners turn it on, and even in between brew cycles, the coffee maker sends information back to its manufacturer, which knows exactly how many times the owners use it.

Perhaps the manufacturer is tracking when critical components wear out, prompting the owner to replace the device. The manufacturer could e-mail the owner a discount coupon as an enticement to purchase the same brand. As Big Data collection and analysis grows more sophisticated, the manufacturer may even determine what kind of coffee the machine regularly serves up.


Is any of the preceding really any of the manufacturer’s business? The implications for whatever shreds of privacy remain are unnerving.

Maybe over-the-shoulder coffee pot snooping is benign, but consider rental cars. These vehicles already come equipped with black boxes that track how fast and where customers drive their rental vehicles. All of this digital driving information (Big Data) transmits back to the rental company’s hard drives, where it remains available for the rental company to use against individuals who speed or get into accidents while driving its cars or trucks.

In most of these actual or predicted scenarios, the Big Data flow is one way only. Customers certainly do not have the same inside track on the rental car company’s behavior, such as whether it tends to rent out recalled vehicles or skimps on maintenance.

This kind of Big Data-based information imbalance aids and abets abuse of power by putting customers in an even more unequal position than they already are against big businesses with access to far more money and resources.

As another example of Big Data-enabled spying, one auto insurance company dangles the promise of lower rates to lure new and current customers into sharing actual driving behavior. This is so much more revealing than a mere check of the public records for any traffic-related offenses.

The company gives them a device that taps into their car’s onboard processor, records everything, such as speed and location, and transmits it to the insurance company. This information can be matched quickly to legal driving speeds to find out whether or not the insurance candidate routinely speeds.

Big data equals Big Brother Business peering into potentially the most intimate details of our lives. The U.S. Constitution does not ban corporate intrusion the way it does the government, but perhaps it should.

Big Data is one of the hottest topics right now both in the telecommunications and the IT industries. There is excited chatter about how Big Data eventually will bring about the ultimate interconnection of people and machines, yielding some great new dawn. This all sounds about as appealing as the Borg out of Star Trek–The Next Generation. Do we really want to mind meld with our coffee makers?

On the other hand, given the inane blather that routinely passes for public discourse these days, maybe the coffee pot has decent insights.

(Under the byline C.L. Talmadge, Candace writes and publishes fiction that explores what happen when politics, passion, and piety collide. More on her series Follow her on Twitter @StoneScribe)