Big data, little Britain and nationalistic fever

Theresa May’s post-Brexit government has already left a lasting mark on the UK and its role in the global economy during its short time in power.

In spite of the circumstances of her appointment, the prime minister absolutely believes she has a mandate to not just exit the European Union but entirely change the UK forever.

Her vision reflects a rigid ideology for a little Britain whose residents become much more homogeneous, monitored constantly by the state and financially worse off.

The rise of nationalistic fever around the globe has been fuelled by both rigid ideologies and the use of data, big and small, to gain insights into the public, as well as to control any opposition.

Much of this has been conducted under the auspices of being for ‘the public good’ or in the name of ‘national security’, but all efforts are specifically intended to concentrate more power, insights and control into the hands of governments.

The result is a long line of Western governments that are a lot less democratic and much more authoritarian than they were pre-9/11 and 7/7. Many of us have foreseen these issues and spoken up, but the media and press have been co-opted by these same governments to act as their pit bulls in stifling any opposition as well as reporting of the truth.

This toxic mix of rigid ideologies, the concentration of power, the limitation of human rights and the muting of dissent has reduced the principles of democracy to more of a notion, if not a source of ridicule by those now in power.

Examples of these endeavours in recent months in the UK – both before and after the EU referendum – include the Investigatory Powers Act (otherwise known as the Snooper’s Charter), the Digital Economy Bill, the Department for Education’s National Pupil Database and the Home Office’s foreign workers’ database.

Surveillance tools

All of these are tools of control and surveillance that leverage the same big data capabilities that have been touted by so many as virtuous and beneficial to society, but in ways that few were willing to discuss publicly.

However, there have been some recent discussions in the UK and the US on managing the vision and scope of artificial intelligence for the public good, as well as getting ahead of the tide of discrimination that big data-driven insights into citizens’ behaviours have brought.

In all cases these efforts were designed to distract attention away from the government’s own behaviour with respect to these and other emerging applications of big data and advanced analytics.

In essence, the fears about the nefarious use of big data to harm or control the public are a form of psychological projection with respect to the government shifting its own blame onto others, while standing in judgement against the public and not-for-profit sectors. It would all seem so laughable if it were not so serious.

The movement away from democratic government to one based on rigid ideologies, along with the exploitation of big data and advanced analytics by these same governments, has become a clear and present danger to all citizens under their control.

The accumulation of knowledge about each citizen’s behaviour and activities by the state is a bell that cannot be ‘unrung’. Massive databases, predictive analytics and machine learning are all tools of the big data paradigm and can be used as a force for good in the right hands or as an unbounded force for evil in the wrong ones.

To imagine the scope of this potential evil, one only needs to look back a short time in history to see how such information, albeit at a much more primitive level of sophistication, was used to discriminate, enslave and control entire populations across the world.

The efficiencies brought by big data to this type of behaviour control are limitless and should be feared by all that cherish the beliefs of liberty, equality and fraternity.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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