The data problem in a technological society

Data files create a data problem

In our technological society there is a data problem. Computer files are the basic sources of information for most purposes. That includes information about citizens – you. If the many data files about you are joined up they tell a story. It can be misinterpreted. It can be manipulated. It can be just plain wrong. That story can even be a lie. You have little or no chance to check it or make changes. That data story is out of your control. And, this data is used to make decisions. These could be important decisions about you and your future. Yet it can be based on a lot of misinformation – potentially at least.

Of assumptions and mistakes

Computer programs that hold, or pick out data, are based on assumptions. Data sources are often insecure. Databases are widely and openly hacked. Information law is easy to hide from and work around. The police are ill-equipped to fight cyber-criminals. And on top of all that, there are hundreds of ways to monitor us and use that information. Nearly every organization collects data about you. The sources and storage of data are growing and being made more widely available.

All this adds up to a data problem. And it is growing.

In other words, there is a wealth of information being collected. However, it is not verified by you. The assumptions are not controlled by strong legislation. Information is liable to be wrong. It has weak controls. Information about everyone, is quite simply, open to abuse.

Above all else, this data problem is becoming more joined up. Database systems have become extraordinarily powerful. Over a few short years the situation has changed substantially. Systems have become linked through a growing and global network system of private links and the Internet. With the right access, or stolen access, it is possible to open up a picture of you. A picture that could be more complex and informed about you than even you are aware.

Is the data problem controlled?

Sometimes the people involved in building database systems obscure the aims and issues. It is in the interests of organizations to keep their data secret. The very data itself is often the source of their profit. So protecting your privacy is of little concern.

Politicians are not technical experts. They work in developing public policy. They therefore have little understanding of the technical issues. As a result they leave the technical problems to the technical practitioners. However, politicians cannot tackle the data problem alone. They need advice on technical issues.

They are advised by experts who know nothing of public policy. Technical practitioners spend a lifetime immersed in technical problems. They do not have the language or experience of public policy. They are not skilled in discussing policy and lack the analytical insight to crystalise social issues.

Politicians and technicians have little common ground. They do not share the same experiences or the same tools. Yet together they have to do two important jobs…

  • Develop the brief for specific database systems.
  • Create laws that will control the systems and prevent social problems.

When developing new database systems, experts and politicians tell programmers to write computer programs. But both are unable to verify that the programs do not express the prejudices of the programmer.

All of this is a recipe for loop-holes, misinformation, bad practice, poor decisions, illegal activity, discrimination and manipulation. And, all of it can affect you – personally. Even if you are a “good person with nothing to hide”!

Modern technology is very intrusive. Without your knowledge or a chance to explain yourself, you can be subject to critical decisions. These are decisions made by computers and the people who use them. These decisions about your life can have real impact on your future. Bank accounts, mortgages, insurance, health care, jobs and even investments might be decided on the basis of this information. Certainly education, health and criminal proceedings already depend on this type of data.

In the future the knowledge collected on computer about you will affect your life in ever more significant ways.

Being more careful – understanding more

We all need to be more careful about our personal data. The data problem affects our privacy, security, safety, finances and even jobs and life opportunities. We also need to be much more aware of exactly what is personal data.

The question is, how much do you know about these things?

This website is a resource to help everyone learn about the dangers of the data problem in modern living. It is too easy to release information about yourself to the world. Over the coming posts, this web site will open up some of the issues above. It will help you think about and prepare for your future and your children’s future in a database society.