This week I read an article about a Princeton sociology professor, Janet Vertesi, who tried to hide the fact that she was pregnant from those who use 'big data', which sounds really scary but is really just a silly neologism for an old concept - trawling databases to find correlations that are useful to marketing people, researchers, intelligence agencies and the like. This woman seemed to be most concerned about marketers targeting her with product offers, but that is not something that particularly worries me. The worst that can result from receiving emails or telephone calls from people trying to sell you things is that you buy something.
The real concern is not big data but Big Brother, such as when Vertesi's husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift vouchers on her behalf and was told the transaction would be reported to the authorities. I am aware that in New Zealand any financial transaction of more than $10,000 is required to be reported to government under the AML-CFT (Anti-Money Laundering - Counter-Financing of Terrorism) laws and I understand this is the same in most Western countries, but obviously in America the threshold is now so low it covers transactions that are the equivalent of a modestly-priced suit of clothing or a good restaurant dinner.
Why would the government be interested in such trivial transactions? In this case it was clearly the anonymity of the transaction that led to the government's interest. The purpose of AML-CFT laws, as the name suggests, is terrorism and money laundering, but as we know from the recent revelations of the likes of Edward Snowden the US Government has used the powers it has garnered under anti-terrorism laws for all manner of purposes. Initially the expanded purview of such laws was serious crime such as drug trafficking, but ultimately governments cannot resist using such powers for any purpose they deem fit. In the case of Kim Dotcom, we saw the full power of New Zealand's state security apparatus including our GCSB spy agency used in a case of alleged copyright infringement.
Another interesting case this week was that of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Sterling came to our attention because his mistress released private communications in which Sterling objected to her bringing black men to Clippers' games. Clearly Sterling is a racist and, by all accounts, a sterling asshole, but as Mark Steyn points out in his blog, as bad as the comments Sterling made were, what the National Basketball Association has done to him is worse. Sterling made the comments in private and the NBA (which has fined him $2.5m and banned him from attending his own team's games for life) should have no interest in the matter. Neither should the media, especially the New Zealand media (many of which ran the story as their lead).
In the novel 1984, Winston Smith discovered that there is no freedom without privacy. If you cannot express your thoughts even to those whom you most trust without fear that you will be subject to a public witchhunt, or make a small, innocent purchase without inviting the surveillance of the authorities, then you don't have the freedom to think at all. And everything follows from that.