Data, even lots of it, can be useful. But it also leads to erroneous conclusions and questionable correlations. Ever been baffled by the content of a “targeted” ad? Just imagine the fun you’ll have when “lol ‘targeted’ ad” is replaced with nearly-incessant “interactions” with law enforcement.
The American Civil Liberties Union, citing reports that the Chicago Police Department used a computer analysis to create a “heat list” that unfairly associated innocent people with criminal behavior, has warned about the dangers of the police using big data. Even companies that make money doing this sort of work warn that it comes with civil rights risks.
“We’re heading to a world where every trash can has an identifier. Even I get shocked at the comprehensiveness of what data providers sell,” said Courtney Bowman, who leads the privacy and civil liberties practice at Palantir Technologies, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that sells data analysis tools. He has lectured on the hazards of predictive policing and the need to prove in court that predictive models follow understandable logic and do not reinforce stereotypes.
When even the companies gathering the data are concerned about the implications, there’s a problem. (One issue being: why don’t they stop?) Anything that can be obtained (preferably in bulk) without a warrant will be. And it gets funneled into predictive policing software that attempts to mold disparate info into a usable whole. Lost in the shuffle are the individuals now represented by data points and algorithms. A data point located in the “wrong” neighborhood could result in surveillance backed by nothing resembling reasonable, articulable suspicion.
It’s not all bad, though. There are uses for aggregate data that don’t create privacy concerns or fears of ever more biased policing. As the New York Times article points out, the collected data frees up resources to deal with more serious crime by contributing to traffic management and reducing the amount of data entry needed to complete routine paperwork.
On the other hand, the desire to obtain any data available without a warrant is resulting in some very twisted uses of third-party records. In places like Chicago, the data-driven “wrong side of the tracks” can result in many innocent people being treated as inherently suspect. In Seattle, government agencies are hoovering up third-party records to maximize rent-seeking.
The county’s animal services recently sent out loads of threatening letters to pet-owning residents, warning them that failing to get their pets properly licensed could lead to $250 fines. The county was going extract money from them either way.
But how did the county know who owned pets if they weren’t licensed? It turns out they got their mitts on direct mail lists from stores that tracked customer purchasing habits through membership cards and the like. For the stores and the private retail environment, they’re tools to more directly market consumers with goods they may want or need. In the hands of government, it becomes a lot more sinister. A woman who no longer owned a pet received one of these threatening letters and wondered what was going on.
The plan: compare these third-party mailing lists to pet registrations and send threatening letters to anyone on List A but not on List B. Sure, the county claims it won’t be doing any follow-up enforcement — like in-person visits from animal control officers with their hands out — but the damage has already been done. People who no longer have pets are being hit with letters and plenty of unregistered pet owners will never even know the county is digging through third-party data in hopes of sniffing them out.
Once such government behavior becomes viewed as acceptable — or not troublesome enough to result in losable lawsuits or massive public backlash — it becomes the new normal. Today, the government comes for your unregistered pets. Tomorrow, it could be your children.
How about a threatening letter from Child Protective Services noting that your grocery purchases suggest you are not feeding your kids with foods the government deems the most healthy, and if you don’t change your behavior, you may have a little visit? It’s not an absurd idea, given we’re seeing food nannies in the school system meddling with lunches parents are providing to their kids.
The solution would appear to be to prevent retailers from gathering so much data about their customers. But it isn’t. Retailers can send as much garbage mail as they like in hopes of more sales, but all they can do is hint and beg. The government, on the other hand, has plenty of enforcement options to make unsolicited direct mail campaigns much more effective in separating people from their money. Or their pets. Or their kids. Or whatever.