Internet Expert Viktor Mayer-Schonberger to Speak
In early June, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the U.S. National Security Agency had been collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans under a secret court order. The source was Edward Snowden, who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, an NSA contracting firm.
And with that revelation, six years after the records began to be collected, the sinister side of “big data” was revealed to the world under the codename PRISM.
“I was surprised by the comprehensive nature of PRISM, but not by the fact that such programs are in place,” says Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, co-author with Kenneth Cukier of the book “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think” (John Murray Publishers), which was released this year.
Mayer-Schonberger will give year’s Laura Hanhausen Milton First Year Lecture, which will be held Oct. 9 in Goldstein Auditorium. Established in 1997 by a gift to The College of Arts and Sciences from Jack ’51 and Laura ’51 Milton, the lecture series brings a speaker of national/international stature to campus each fall to address first-year students. The lecture is a culminating experience of the college’s First-Year Forum program, a small seminar-like class for incoming students to help them transition to college. The title of Mayer-Schonberger’s lecture is “Big Data: How We Live, Work, Think and Feel.”
The existence of Big Data was inevitable. Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like—collect vast quantities of data about all of us as we go about our business online. There is so much data that companies had to invent new processes for analyzing them, which has led to valuable new insights.
For instance, in 2009 Google created an algorithm that used searches to predict the spread of a new strain of flu virus, called H1N1. The best that the Centers for Disease Control could do was to provide data two weeks after the fact.
It’s the predictive quality of Big Data that leads to its downside. “Big Data analysis is a very powerful tool, and as such it is neither inherently good nor bad, nor is it neutral,” Mayer-Schonberger says. “It has specific qualities and as such lends itself to certain types of analysis …, and may lead to certain types of threat or problems, such as that we abuse Big Data analysis to punish people for acts they are only predicted to do.”
Another issue is lack of privacy. Big Data is a great tool for researching health issues, but it’s easy to trace anonymized data back to the person who provided it.
“The best hope for privacy protection in the future is to constrain the use of data by requiring data users to assess potential risks and harms to individuals before they commence the use of the data, and to put in place stringent and effective safeguards against such harms,” Mayer-Schonberger says. “Privacy is not dead, but the mechanisms through which we protect privacy have to evolve.”
“The topic, Big Data, as covered by Mayer-Schonberger, will play an important role in our students’ lives,” says George M. Langford, dean of The College of Arts and Sciences. “In the college, we educate our students in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in the 21st-century democracy. The Milton Lecture has established a longstanding tradition of bringing distinguished lecturers to campus and introducing students to a wide range of topics beyond their everyday experience.
“Learning how to appreciate the scientific, social and human aspects of Big Data will be part of their liberal arts and sciences here in Syracuse,” Langford says.
Mayer-Schonberger is professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute. He is also a faculty affiliate of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.
He studied law in Salzburg, Cambridge and Harvard and economics at the London School of Economics. He founded Ikarus Software, which focuses on Internet security, in 1986. He was voted one of Austria’s Top 5 Software Entrepreneurs in 1991 and Person of the Year for the state of Salzburg in 2000.
In addition to “Big Data,” Mayer-Schonberger has published eight books and written more than 100 articles and book chapters on the information economy. He advises governments, businesses and non-government organizations on new economy and information society issues.