Book Review: Data and Goliath

“Data and Goliath” is an excellent book a friend recommended. It’s a summary of all the dangerous and negative ways data, and the “Big Data” technology can shape our societies. The author Bruce Schneier is a prominent expert in cryptography who published impactful works on cryptography and issues on privacy. He’s also on the board of directors of Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The book provides abundant amount of cases and examples related to big data misuse, as well as author’s careful and in-depth analysis of different impacts data has on our societies, and pragmatic recommendations to different sides of the society on solving the “Big Data” problem.

The book mostly discusses how governments and corporates can abuse its use to profit, surveil or control citizens at the cost of our privacy, freedom, and even democracy. Without proper protection, regulation and activism, we are unknowingly giving up our rights to data.

Governments can abuse Big Data, and our political liberty and justice system can be corrupted, with mass surveillance on citizens, and surveillance data can in turn be leveraged to accuse dissidents and silence political opponents. Government censorships can thwart free thinking and social progress, and make way for an oppressive regime.

The author provides an interesting thought experiment, originally from English philosopher Jeremy Bentham: panopticon, meaning a prison where all inmates can constantly be watched by the guard, even when guard is not actively watching them. In such a system, inmates are much more conformant from the constant fear of criticism, judgements and punishments. A society becomes a panopticon with mass surveillance and censorship.

Some other examples include the political witch-hunting in 1950s led by senator Joseph McCarthy, and harassment Dr. Martin Luther King received from then then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The book described the chilling effect surveillance and abuse of power can have on political movements.

From a commercial perspective, misuse of “Big Data” can have dangerous effects on society as well. Surveillance-based discrimination basically revive the “redlining” to the internet age, where discrimination can be much more pervasive, intrusive and effective, and thus more damaging. Large corporate collected data can be used for massive online manipulation. A good example is how Facebook can nudge its users to vote with a rate of ~0.4%. Imagine if it discriminately displays the nudging information to vote.

(The book is finished around 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica incident, proving the author’s foresight.)

Finally the book stressed the importance of Software/Network security, privacy to our society, and analyzed why it doesn’t contradict the governments’ role of ensuring the security of the societies, corporates’ role of leveraging data for profit. Finally it provides pragmatic recommendations on solving the “Big Data” mess, to governments, corporates, and the rest of us. In all it was a good read.