Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tech is neutral, evil lurks in the hearts of men

What do nuclear power, "big data" mining, and strong cryptography have in common? All three are technologies that have been blamed for great ills. The thing is, technology itself is neutral. Even technology that is developed for evil purposes is, of itself, neutral --it is the people using it that are good or evil or in-between.

Consider nuclear power. Nuclear research was undertaken with the express purpose of creating a devastating weapon of mass destruction; from this, many concluded that nuclear science was inherently evil, and because of it's potential for death and destruction, should be banned. And nuclear war turns out to be very deadly indeed: the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima may have killed close to 250,000 people.

And yet the very same research has led to medical technology that benefits upward of 20 million people a year in the United States alone. And power systems that operate where none other can. And potential for interstellar travel. And a better understanding of our universe.

And so the story goes with other things. For years the US effectively prohibited the export of strong cryptography, on the basis that it could be used by foreign powers to protect secrets. The FBI regularly proposes schemes to let them listen in on encrypted communications by neutering effective crypto, on the basis that criminals can use cryptographic techniques to hide from law enforcement. And the NSA continues to hold the position that encrypting your data makes you a suspicious person.

Yet at the same time, the NIST has worked closely with the intelligence community to ensure that there are standards for strong cryptography, like AES, because they know that using good crypto protects businesses and domestic interests.

Both of these examples illustrates something very important: the technology itself isn't good or bad, but it can be used for good or bad purposes. Evil isn't embodied in technology, evil lurks in the hearts of men.

And thus we come to data mining and "big data" technologies. The ability to store vast quantities of simple data, including the sort of metadata storage and analysis the NSA has recently been caught out for, and perform fast, deep queries to find patterns is extremely powerful. If the British had the techniques -- not even the technology, just the math -- during the American Revolution, Paul Revere would have been in a world of hurt

These "big data" systems have significant privacy implications. Facebook knows you're gay. Target knows your teenage daughter is pregnant.That's scary. And the fear of those capabilities is leading to calls to stop data mining.  Once again, the technology is being blamed for the bad acts of people.

The same data-mining technologies that can erode our privacy can be used to diagnose cancer and predict the prognosis for patients (PDF), or to make sense of the huge number of inputs from a pediatric ICU.

What we need is not a ban on the technology of data mining, but a social and legal framework for preventing bad uses of technology. Put another way: it's the people, stupid.

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