How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil-Rights Laws

Crime / Law | Sectors   |   
Published April 26, 2014   |   
Virginia Eubanks

Big Data will eradicate extreme world poverty by 2028, according to Bono, front man for the band U2. But it also allows unscrupulous marketers and financial institutions to prey on the poor. Big Data, collected from the neonatal monitors of premature babies, can detect subtle warning signs of infection, allowing doctors to intervene earlier and save lives. But it can also help a big-box store identify a pregnant teenager—and carelessly inform her parents by sending coupons for baby items to her home. News-mining algorithms might have been able to predict the Arab Spring. But Big Data was certainly used to spy on American Muslims when the New York City Police Department collected license plate numbers of cars parked near mosques, and aimed surveillance cameras at Arab-American community and religious institutions.

Until recently, debate about the role of metadata and algorithms in American politics focused narrowly on consumer privacy protections and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA). That Big Data might have disproportionate impacts on the poor, women, or racial and religious minorities was rarely raised. But, as Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, a civil rights organization that seeks to empower black Americans and their allies, point out in a commentary at TPM Cafe, while big data can change business and government for the better, “it is also supercharging the potential for discrimination.”

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