Data isn’t the new oil. And we should be careful.

We’re all the rage with big data and its potential. But data might actually be the new CO2, as previously analyzed in a Luminate blog post. Recently, the covid19 crisis adds more surveillance risks, as described by Yuval Harari. The European regulator has declared the situation changes drastically:

We could not even imagine that reasonable people would start asking internet & telecom operators to possibly track each and every person in Europe using his or her mobile location data in real time, and to create a diagram representing all physical interactions between people. — Wojciech Wiewiórowski

Privacy is a fundamental but not absolute right. Interferences may be justified when (and only when) prescribed by law, necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and proportionate to that aim. In the current situation the legitimate aim is to limit the spread of a contagious disease, until we get a cure.

The proportionate requirement is more complex, especially in emergency situations during which we don’t have time for careful design and evaluation. I would argue that the legitimate aim can just as well be achieved through other means (in short, humanity didn’t wait for iPhone and Android to fight pandemics, and pedagogy is a safer bet than technology controled behaviour). Most backtracking applications, even if they claim anonymization, cannot technically ensure it is completely safe (of course it depends on the types of data and the methods used). Re-identification is usually possible (see as examples, those two articles in nature and arxiv).

The rest of the article is geared more specifically towards the specific data use made by Big Techs. Before the current pandemic crisis, 2 important books were published in 2019, that anyone should know and which complement each other:

  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff
  • Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism, by Julie E. Cohen

In case you don’t read till the end, data is not oil but a product of social creation. As a citizen, you should care, as your current choices will shape the future.