Can Big Data Catch the Bad Guys?

Balancing individual liberties with Big Brother surveillance and intelligence-gathering methods means walking a fine line that will require proper balancing for the foreseeable future. Regardless of opinion, Big Data has some role to play in keeping us safe, and the sooner we recognize it the better.

A Bad Guy

The following is a flight of fantasy, but in the wake of recent events, I believe that we would be foolish not to develop every possible technology to safeguard the lives of our children and their children.

There are many very reasonable arguments about the potential invasiveness of Big Data and the implications that it may have for our privacy. It is already a simple fact that we have no idea who is in possession of what data about us – the Edward Snowden revelations alleged government snooping on an industrial scale, but is this the price of our future security? A price that is worth paying?

After a few more tragic events like the ones in Paris, I think that the debate might finally come into the mainstream. Are our civil liberties worth surrendering (to a certain extent) in order to ensure that potential terrorists are foiled?

I will leave that question to one side as it will create a huge discussion (and rightly so). I would, however, like to consider a world in which Big Data can combat terrorism…. It is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

I am not an expert on extremism, but the path is generally a well-trodden one. Detailed analysis and risk assessments could be made not only on a retrospective basis but even on a “live” basis – if subject A goes to place B, it is highly likely that he is going to do action C.

Law enforcement agencies can easily share their data across borders – now a subject living in Belgium can pop across the border to Paris and cause mayhem. If more data were readily shared in real time, we would have a greater chance of being able to prevent these events. Who knows, this may already be happening to a certain extent – we will never know about the attempts that have been foiled.

If the key to Big Data, in this case, is about analysing behaviours, “Big Brother” surveillance methods must have some place in our future society. There are many arguments about how we should integrate better in our societies, etc, and they are very valid, but if it is so easy for one individual to procure a suicide belt and cause untold carnage, then maybe we do need to collect more data first in order for it to be analysed and the risks assessed? As always, it is a balance between individual liberties and the security of the wider society. I believe that the balance of opinion will, unfortunately, swing towards the latter at some point.

Data Scientists could be on the front line of protecting our world in the decades to come. We need to give them the tools to do their job, ensure that they have the relevant data to do their job, and accept that without them we are pretty much helpless in the face of an ever more disparate threat.

The C.I.A. isn’t called the Central Intelligence Agency for nothing. Intelligence is what will ensure that wars are avoided in the future. Big Data will be at the very heart of this intelligence, and, in actual fact, it already is.