Who should we fear, Big Brother or Big Data?

It has occurred to us, here at the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program, that the real threat to privacy we most need to worry about does not come from the National Security Agency and other government spying agencies, but from data aggregation by companies like Google and Facebook. The government agencies are constrained by legal rules, judicial review, and Congressional oversight (even if the briefings are classified, they are occurring). But for the average consumer, everything you do online — shop, read the news, and interact through social media — feeds a vast industry that aggregates data, allowing data vendors to create a granular picture of what makes you, you. Add to this data collected from the so-called “Internet of Things”– wired devices like a thermostat that knows when you will be at home and away, or a pill bottle that knows when it is time to refill your prescription — and surveillance uploaded to the Cloud through Google Glass, and soon, pretty much everything about your identity will be available for sale by commercial database vendors. A recent series of news stories seem to validate these concerns further.
A timely and topical Washington Post article asks if your online newspaper now “reads you” as you read it. Psychologist Richard Epstein suggests that a Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) could have influenced the outcome of the recent Indian election, and could be coming soon to an election near you.

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