I saw this interview with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on the news the other morning and thought I'd share. He has a lot of interesting things to say -- talks trash about Larry Page and extolls the genius of Steve Jobs for starters-- but I am particularly fascinated by the turn of the discussion around the 4:33 mark. At that point Charlie Rose asks Ellison about the NSA collecting data on American citizens. The main point of Ellison's response is that credit card companies and financial companies have been collecting this information for a long, long time and we as a society haven't been all that worried about it. He calls this data collection "Essential" for locating terrorists and states that the collection of massive amounts of data would have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing. When Rose asks him what would be a misuse of data, he says "when Democrats use it against Republicans or Republicans use it against Democrats." I think what he might mean is when the data is used to quash dissent.
I have recently started my first class in the Data Science program at Syracuse University, and one of the discussion questions last week was: "Are we, as a society, collecting the right data?" What a broad and open ended question. What does "right" even mean in this instance? I wrote about this NSA stuff in my response and a fellow student pointed out that it is not the collecting of the data that is necessarily a problem (he is not American and thinks American uproar over the NSA stuff is overreaction), it is the effective analysis of the data that will turn out to be a positive thing for security. I feel like he is saying the same thing that Ellison says, basically: the data is not being misused, why worry?
Of course, the NSA uses Oracle's database technology for some of its work. And the dude who responded to me in my class is a security IT worker for a big financial services firm. All of this makes me think of Google's mantra: "Don't be evil." The public needs a better understanding of how data is and is not being collected, how it is being used, and have an open discussion on exactly what constitutes "evil." We need a public consensus, as opposed to a behemoth like Google or Oracle or the NSA saying "oh we're not evil." There are many opportunities that "Big Data" and sophisticated analytics present for the benefit of society, but it is up to the citizens of a democratic society to determine what those benefits ought to be.