Friday, June 7, 2013

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Big Data

Mollie Hemingway
Some conservatives are cheering on the federal government's collection of data on all Americans' phone calls, internet activity, credit card transactions, etc.
Wall Street Journal: Thank You for Data-Mining
Andrew McCarthy/NRO: Phone Record Gathering Story Blown Out of Proportion
And I suppose there's no reason why conservatives who cheered on President Bush's expansion of the surveillance state should feel differently about it just because President Obama has further expanded it and given it some teeth. I'm much more weirded out by the liberals who screamed bloody murder at the Patriot Act who have suddenly gotten all comfortable with it under Obama.
But knowing that liberty-loving Americans are in short supply, I've decided to just join with the other side. Embrace Big Data and Big Brother and everything. Is there any reason we have to suspect that our federal government would ever do anything nefarious against its citizens? Anything at all?
In 2008, Ian Ayres wrote "Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart." It's about meta-data analysis. On page 34, he writes:
"Imagine a world where people looked to the IRS as a source for useful information. The IRS could tell a small business that it might be spending too much on advertising or tell an individual that the average taxpayer in her income bracket gave more to charity or made a larger IRA contribution. Heck, the IRS could probably produce fairly accurate estimates about the probability that small businesses (or even marriages) would fail. In fact, I'm told that VISA already does predict the probability of divorce based on credit card purchases (so that it can make better predictions of default risk). (A little later on, we will take on whether all this Super Crunching is really a good idea. Just because it's possible to make accurate predictions about intimate matters doesn't mean that we should.) But I might at least want the option of having the government make predictions about various aspects of my life. Instead of thinking of the IRS as solely a taker, we might also think of it as an information provider. We could even change its name to the "Information & Revenue Service."
Don't you feel better? 
Wouldn't that be awesome to get the IRS engaged in some meta-data analysis? Why this meta-data doesn't just fight terrorist bombings in Boston (OK, bad example) but it can also tell you to get a divorce! And once we drop those barriers between agencies, the sky's the limit about what Big Data Brother can do for you.
Who else is on board?