Too Much Data in Too Many Hands for Both Good and Evil

Word Cloud "Big Data"New Orleans      An observation decades ago always stuck with me. It was a comparison of Americans and people who live elsewhere. The point made by the author, whose name fittingly has long ago left me, is that we have too much information at hand and too little ability to process it. Ironically, that was then, and the observer would have been dumbstruck by the exponential increase of information now available to us and just about everyone else on the other end of hands pounding the keyboards, but some people have the ability to process it. What’s out there and who has the capacity to understand it though, still might leave us at the same point as a generation ago without the ability to use the tools effectively. Too many of us are at the Stone Age, while a few others are flying to the moon.

A case in point can be found with the new data on doctors and their paymasters, including and especially drug companies and others who would interfere with good judgment. Part of the Obamacare reforms are already tracking what various hospitals now charge for specific procedures, and starting in September, we will all have this information if we have access to a website. Excellent news! How many will be able to effectively access that data to make the choices that it promises and within the ACA, how many of the doctors a patient might want to avoid will be in or out of the network allowing the power of such information to give rise to voice and the threat of exit? Well, that’s a whole different question entirely, but today it’s safe to say, the information is more powerful as a selective threat from the government than a promise useful to many people.

More disturbingly is the availability of what some called “hyper-specific” community data. As the Times posed the question, if you…”Want to find a ‘family-friendly’ community within 20 miles of Boston with a high Asian population, a low poverty rate and a median home value of $400,000…” then there’s a bunch of websites for you! With some simple key strokes and a semi-passive real estate database and an agent steering you into its use, then you can effectively violate the Fair Housing Act and racially discriminate all day long. It’s not so much “redlining” anymore but it is a kind of data-mining discrimination that eviscerates Fair Housing, the CRA, and a host of other public policies.

We have police looking at broken windows in our cities as a deterrent, but no one should be able to look at personal computer screens due to privacy restrictions. Well not exactly, since a federal appeals judge just allowed federal prosecutors access to email and data records for a customer whose info was held at a Microsoft data farm in Ireland. We already knew there were no boundaries for the NSA, and it appears there are no foreign borders either.

It seems clear that the level of data now on everyone and everything and the ability of some, but not all, to access and process that data has outstripped our ability to regulate, legislate, protect privacy, establish and maintain rights and entitlements, and of course hold us safe and sound. We may not all be planning a trip to the moon, but we’re living on a planet and in an age that none of us truly understands anymore.

Just saying.

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