Part 1: Algorithms & Big Data’s Impact on Our Privacy


Data crunching has grown so sophisticated and powerful,

privacy researchers now warn that tracing identities from a pool of supposedly “anonymized” data is not just a possibility,

it’s a certainty.

, NBC News

Recently, I ran across the phrase “the tyranny of algorithms.”  It sounded important and something I should know more about in my quest for digital literacy. I tried to puzzle it out. Tyranny? Was that the heavy boot of a despotic ruler grinding into the backs of millions of people? Algorithm sounded mathematical. I thought it might be a way to sort data to find answers.

I googled the phrase.  Many resources surfaced. A  short Khan Academy video explained algorithms.  The first definition surprised me with its simplicity and application to any project. Their examples were traveling from home to the train station or making a grilled cheese sandwich. It said:  “algorithm (noun) a set of steps to accomplish a task.”

The second definition explained computer algorithms: “start with input data, do complex calculations, stop when we find answer.” The video (4.5 minutes) made it easy to understand algorithms.


Kevin Slavin, TED talk

If the Khan Academy version doesn’t do it for you,  then watch this TED talk by Kevin Slavin on “How Algorithms Shape Our World.” It’s a great way to learn how algorithms  help us isolate, pattern, analyze, and interpret seemingly impenetrable blocks of data to establish new “truths”. Your 15 minutes of watching might culminate in your joining the standing ovation at the end.

The algorithm explanations took me to Lisa’s blog post on five tech trends of 2015 for nonprofits. Lisa cited Mary Beth Westmoreland from Blackbaud on the impact of “additional web, social, and interaction data … now being gathered by charities. This ever increasing amount of data means nonprofits must shift from collecting to analyzing.”  While the data analyzing may challenge nonprofits, it is by no means a unique activity.  Lisa assessed that “Cloud technology will make data collection easier and more accessible to everyone.”  She is so right! It will also make millions of people more vulnerable to repressive regimes and unscrupulous companies. Here’s how…

Spiegel Online International, a German newpaper, ran a series of seven articles in 2013 titled “Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds” written by Martin U. Müller, Marcel Rosenbach and Thomas Schulz.

Their estimate of the speed of data being created on the internet:

…it is currently growing faster than ever. An estimated 2.8 zettabytes of data were created in 2012. One zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilobytes. Experts predict that the volume of new data could increase to 40 zettabytes by 2020. It would take about 250 million DVDs to store the amount of data being transmitted on the Internet in a single day. This volume doubles about once every two years.

Their assessment of how algorithms tame the data:

New is the way companies, government agencies and scientists are now beginning to interpret and analyze their data resources.  Because storage space costs almost nothing nowadays, computers, which are getting faster and faster, can link and correlate a wide variety of data around the clock.  Algorithms are what create order from this chaos.  They dig through, discovering previously unknown patterns and promptly revealing new relationships, insights and business models.

Order instead of Chaos by geralt at pixabay

Order instead of Chaos by geralt at pixabay

The authors recognize that “Though the term Big Data means very little to most people, the power of algorithms is already everywhere.”  Credit card companies “recognize unusual usage patterns,” energy companies “use weather data analyses to pinpoint ideal locations for wind turbines,” and Stockholm uses algorithms to “manage traffic” and reduce emissions from automobiles. An article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr offers a splendid use of big data in the person of George Halvorson, Chief Executive of Kaiser Permanente, who,

extols the benefits of its growing database on nine million patients, tracking treatments and outcomes to improve care, especially in managing costly chronic and debilitating conditions like heart disease, diabetes and depression. New smartphone applications, he says, promise further gains — for example, a person with a history of depression whose movement patterns slowed sharply would get a check-in call.

Another medical example from the Spiegel Online series:  Decoding of genomes in a patient with a cancerous tumor, for instance, which used to take months, is now lowered to seconds.  The “super-brain” at the Hasso Plattner Institute outside Berlin can decode the genomes and quickly search “the data for comparable cases to find treatments that resulted in high survival rates and the best possible quality of life” for patients with the same kinds of tumors.

These uses and many more help us but there are other examples that could hurt us.

One authority on information privacy and security is Arvind Narayanan, a professor at Princeton and affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School CIS (Center for Internet and Society).  Narayanan has shown that with a world population of 6.6 billion, it only takes “33 bits (more precisely, 32.6 bits) of information about a person to determine who they are.”  Even revealing your hometown where you reside in a population of 100,000 people gives Narayanan and other computer scientists, 16 bits of information to start with, and it isn’t hard to get the remaining 17.

If, for example, an “un-identified” or “anonymized” version of the Kaiser Permanente data base on 9 million patients were breached, algorithms could “re-identify” every single person in the database. This is concerning depending on who has the data and what they plan to do with it.

Kate Crawford in the Scientific American magazine on “When Big Data Marketing Becomes Stalking,”  exposes the risks posed by  data brokers who buy and sell information. The brokers view “walking down the street … a legitimate data set to be captured, catalogued and exploited.”  Crawford believes that “This slippage between the digital and physical matters not only because of privacy concerns—it also raises serious questions about ethics and power.” Later in the article, Crawford refers to the sale of information such as “police officers’ home addresses, rape sufferers, and genetic disease sufferers as well as suspected alcoholics and cancer and HIV/AIDS patients” and the threats these breaches in identity pose to these people. She documents the sources for  these sales, including congressional testimony by Pam Dixon, World Privacy forum, on December 18, 2013.

Stop. Too. Much. Information. Right? Perhaps the potential hazards of living in the high-tech 21st century can overwhelm?

After my research, I was overwhelmed.  I wondered if there was anything we could do as citizens, internet users, and organizational leaders to protect ourselves and others from becoming information chattel? And there is … come back to read Part II – what I found out.

What do you think about the technological power we have to assemble and analyze big data?  Has it had any impact on you or people you know?  Is the impact good or not so good?

 Patterns picture courtesy of geralt at Pixabay

Shadows picture behind the patterns picture courtesy of oscarwcastillo at Pixabay


1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] interest in the “tyranny of algorithms” phrase led to my writing a blog post on our privacy risks in the onrush of algorithms and big […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply