Big Data: an insidious threat or key to a brighter future?

Each day, we are collectively responsible for over 3.5 billion searches on Google and send over 65 billion messages on WhatsApp. But the scale of our daily digital footprint is much bigger than a search engine and a messaging app.

Big data is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, but how did we get here?

It wasn't too long ago that spreadsheets and databases were gathering the most data in the world. However, the GPS-equipped smartphones in our pocket now generate vast volumes of personal data from every movement and swipe of the screen. Every photo, video, message, and browsing activity will also create data points that make it possible to predict and, in some cases, manipulate our behaviour.

Big data warning signs

Several years have passed since Facebook boasted to advertisers that they knew the exact moment when teenagers felt insecure and needed a confidence boost. Rather than heed the warning, we have filled our homes with IoT devices, digital assistants with always-listening microphones, and smart appliances. All of which are creating data points from the shows we watch on T.V. to how many times we open our refrigerator door.

When your children unwrap their gifts during the holiday season, they are more likely to ask for the wifi password than batteries.

Even mundane and repetitive actions, such as turning on a lamp, will add to the pile of big data on your permanent record. The arrival of analytics programs that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning also makes it possible to take big data into uncharted and often creepy territory.

In the US, police departments are using big data insights in PreCrime divisions that target high-frequency offenders before breaking the law. Elsewhere, private companies could be using your social media photos to train facial recognition A.I. without your consent and then sell it to law enforcement agencies. But the biggest battle is one of control over how governments can use this treasure trove of information to their advantage.

The social dilemma of big data

Data is often described as the new oil that fuels the digital economy. Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft have become five of the world's most valuable listed firms by leveraging the priceless commodity of data. The global big data market is predicted to reach $243.4 billion by 2027. The US Market is Estimated at $21 Billion, While China is Forecast to Grow at 18.9% CAGR.

Predictably, the protection and control of big data assets have become a primary focus for governments and big tech companies. China and the US have infamously been competing to dominate big data for several years. The geopolitical struggle between two of the world's most powerful countries hit the headlines in the battle of who could access TikTok's 2 billion international users' data.

With over 100 million active users in the US alone, concerns have been growing about China's role over the influential social media network and its users. National security concerns are increasing around the increasing number of platforms that monitor every click, swipe, like, and physical location of its communities. But what happens when tensions escalate?

Digital battlefields

Global conflicts will no longer take place on physical battlefields but digital ones. By disabling wireless connections or pulling the plug on a nation's power supply, it could easily not only take an area offline but plunge entire cities into darkness. We often forget that almost every aspect of our life is now heavily reliant on data and networks.

An attack on the critical infrastructure could affect electricity, water supplies, emergency services, supply chains, and even traffic lights. The building of so-called smart cities would also add more vulnerabilities that could be targeted by an enemy thousands of miles away. Suppose the conflict was to escalate and spill onto a physical battlefield. In that case, it will be drone footage, sensors, and satellite imagery that create real-time data that could transform operational intelligence to snatch victory or saves lives.

However, despite our differences, a recent study of 189 countries reveals the need to unite to beat the resource insecurity in our mutual home caused by climate change. Could big data play a critical role in bringing together the global community and building a more sustainable future?

Big data: the most valuable resource

In a resource-constrained world, global agriculture is challenged with producing more food in the next 50 years than in the previous 10,000. To further complicate matters, climate change is making crops less productive. To feed the planet's growing population, we need to do more with less and focus on food sustainability.

Big data has the power to turn negativity into optimism by adopting a more proactive approach to economic instability, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and how we feed the world. We need to think bigger than leveraging attention units for power, control, and profit.

Imagine the possibilities if world leaders dared to retire their legacy mindset to focus on combining the divergent skill sets of humans, machines, and big data. Maybe we could stop repeating the mistakes of our past and build a more sustainable future together. Here in 2020, that may feel like an idealistic vision, but big data might force humanity to think differently sooner than you might think.