If a surveillance society is inevitable, can privacy measures embedded in systems?

The influx of data and the analytics systems that will go with them means we're headed for a surveillance society. Enter a big idea called privacy by design, from one of IBM's researchers.

Jeff Jonas, chief scientist of IBM's Entity Analytics group, is a man of big ideas---and the ridiculous amount of data that goes with them.

Jonas, speaking at GigaOm's Structure Big Data conference in New York, talked data and analytics. Among the general themes:

  • The more data you have the more "enterprise amnesia" you have.
  • Putting context around the data flow is like putting a puzzle together.
  • The hard part is putting those puzzle pieces together.
  • There's enough data around now to predict where you're likely to be on a Thursday around 5:53 p.m.

Add it up and the influx of data---cell phones generate a staggering amount of geolocation data, transactions track you and social streams peg your whereabouts in real time---means we are headed to a surveillance society. "You're going to wish you had an RFID chip," quips Jonas. Indeed, the hubbub of RFID tracking a few years ago looks ridiculous today. After all, people voluntarily agree to be tracked in their social stream.

"The surveillance society is inevitable and irresistible," said Jonas.

The big question is how privacy models will change amid all of the analytics, big data crunching and information (structured and unstructured) keeps flowing unabated.

Jonas is trying to address the problem in an IBM skunkworks project called G2. In a nutshell, G2 is aiming to explore the new physics of big data and produce a system where data finds more data and gives you relevance without asking. This system would eat rows of data for breakfast.

The argument for G2 is that humans aren't going to be able to ask enough questions to get the most out of data. Instead you'll get systems that ask the questions of other systems. It's an algorithm mosh pit that spits out context to us mere humans. Relevance will find you.

Obviously, all of this G2 talk is a bit hard to digest. The biggest worry will be privacy. Jonas noted that G2 will have privacy by design with civil liberties safeguards built in. These features cannot be turned off, said Jonas.

Jonas, who joined IBM via the acquisition of SRD in 2005, got his G2 skunkworks project funded by Big Blue in January. It's a project worth watching going forward.

This post isn't going to do G2 justice---I have a lot more to explore---but Jonas outlined the case for G2 and privacy by design in a few blog posts. More reading from Jonas' blog for the big data wonks in the house: