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PBS Mines the Dark Side of Big Data
February 24, 2016  | By David Hinckley

The FBI and Apple Corp. may just be getting into it now over the legal and moral issues of data collection, but anyone who watches television knows it was only a matter of time.

From CBS’s Person of Interest to USA’s Mr. Robot, Showtime’s upcoming Dark Net and every law enforcement show from NBC’s The Blacklist to CBS’s Scorpion, TV viewers have seen massive data collection hurtling toward us for years – perhaps at first as a futuristic Orwellian vision and now simply as the way it is.

Now a new PBS film called The Human Face of Big Data (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET) helpfully spells it out: Whatever information may or may not be waiting in one suspected terrorist’s phone, huge chunks of all our lives are being mined every day.

The Human Face of Big Data notes that we currently generate as much data every two days as the world generated from its inception through 2003.

For better or for worse.

“Technology is agnostic,” says producer Sandy Smolan. “The question is what we do with it, and we wanted our film to leave viewers with two reactions.

“First is awe at the remarkable insights from analyzing this data: preventative health and solving world problems like hunger, climate change and security.

“The second is fear. We couldn’t talk about the subject without talking about the dark side of big data. What’s the cost of losing our privacy, having all of our data accessible to anyone who chooses to look at it, where we go, what we buy, who we speak to? It’s all there.”

Smolan and his collaborator, his brother Rick Smolan, also note that unlike in Mr. Robot, much of the data collection in real life happens with our willful if sometimes oblivious compliance.

Like when we buy something from Amazon or go on Facebook or use a credit card.

Amazon, Facebook and other services mine our data and sell it to advertisers. Selling our buying preferences, gathered from a seemingly no-charge social media service, is how Mark Zuckerberg can afford so much more than just grey T-shirts.

“Everybody thinks Facebook is free,” says Sandy Smolan. “It is not free. There is a transaction going on every time you go online, and yet people are willing to post all their information in return for the service.

“Your data is worth something. A lot of people are making a lot of money from it. At some point I think there will be a data bill of rights.”

The Human Face of Big Data notes the case of Hugh Campos, a scientist who had a pacemaker implanted. 

“He is kind of a self-fitness nut,” says Rick Smolan. “He measures his sleep, his exercise, his alcohol consumption, everything you can imagine.

“So he called the company that makes the pacemaker and said, ‘I’d like to get a six-month dump of the data that my pacemaker has been creating, because I want to correlate it against all my behaviors.’

“And the woman says, ‘Well, I’m sorry, sir, but that’s our proprietary data.’ He said, ‘No, no, no. This is my heart. I created the data. I want a copy of it.’ He’s suing them now to get a copy.”

On the more positive side, the Smolans and the film talk about how data collection can, for example, predict a disease outbreak by identifying a hot spot where a cluster of early symptoms has appeared.

The Human Face of Big Data also notes technology can help with more mundane issues. If we could collect data on our own metabolism, Rick Smolan notes, we could know how late in the day it is safe to drink coffee without it keeping us awake until 2 a.m.

We could learn which of our electrical devices use the most electricity, so we would know what to turn off.

That would be useful, though less dramatic and telegenic than the big-data scenes on TV.

Almost every police show now has a character like Aram (Amir Arison) on The Blacklist, or Walter (Elyes Gabel) on Scorpion, who can log onto any computer and within seconds seemingly pull up every detail of a person’s life. 

Person of Interest (right) felt futuristic just five years ago when it featured a device called “The Machine” that aggregated data from every surveillance source and predicted crimes before they happened. Today it feels a lot closer to plausible.

That feeling, combined with everything from Edward Snowden to Hillary Clinton’s emails to the standoff between the FBI and Apple, reminds us that it’s worth considering how deeply we want the data divers to plunge into our lives.

Michael Emerson, who as Harold Finch runs “The Machine” in Person of Interest, recalls that after he took the role, “I found I was becoming more aware of everything watching me, like the cameras on the street. I’d never thought before how pervasive they are.

“I’m a little more cautious and self-aware now about what I do outside my home.”

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