Critical Awareness of Big Data

By emolina3

The article by danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical questions for Big Data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon,” discusses the shortcomings of Big Data, specifically in correlation with social media. One of the arguments they put forth in their paper is the way in which data from Twitter is not what it appears to be. Since posts are public by default on Twitter, the “data” from the site is often analyzed or used in research, but those publishing their findings don’t always make it clear that Twitter posts aren’t necessarily representative of what they claim to be. As boyd and Crawford point out, “Twitter does not represent ‘all people’, and it is an error to assume ‘people’ and ‘Twitter users’ are synonymous: they are a very particular sub-set…Nor can we assume that accounts and users are equivalent” (2012, p. 669). As they go on to explain, some users have several accounts, or many people use the same account, or tweets on an account are generated by a bot. There are also those who use Twitter in a passive sense: rather than participate, they simply look at what others are saying. These varying types of users are indicative of the fact that Twitter cannot be relied upon as a representative sample of the population. Unfortunately, however, although some researchers do point out the inherent flaws of using data from Twitter, many news sources do not. Thus, many people don’t question the analysis of what users are expressing on Twitter, or statements relating to statistics of what is happening on the site.

It is this lack of questioning, and lack of awareness, that is worrisome. Big Data is everywhere we turn, yet many people don’t stop to think about the ways in which it is all around us. When the iPhone came out with the touchpad home button, many people didn’t think twice about turning over their thumbprint to their phones (and, as an extension, the company that makes them). Payton and Claypoole write in their book, Privacy in the Age of Big Data, “As business and government collects and benefits from all of this data, capturing data becomes an end in itself. We must have more and more data to feed the insatiable appetite for more. And yet, we are not having a serious public discussion about what information is collected about each of us and how it is being used” (2014, p. vii). This is most likely because the average person does not stop to think how creepy many of these tracking systems are; they either don’t care or don’t realize it’s happening. To return to iPhones as an example: several updates ago, location tags suddenly appeared on photos. As I am very paranoid about any possible intrusions into my private information, I immediately went to my settings and turned off location services for every single app except for Google Maps (and even then, the location is activated only while I am using the app). However, when I brought the issue up to friends, no one else seemed to care that their phones were essentially tracking them.

And yet, the joke is on me. Because GPS is not the only form of tracking on phones. Pinging between cell towers can also help determine location (the first season of “Serial” should have taught me that). It can also be tracked via WiFi, if the phone is continually searching for different networks (another default setting, although that function can of course be turned off – and it most certainly is on my phone). Not only does tracking happen through these types of relatively subtle ways, but it can also happen in the form of a game. As laid out in “Terms of Service,” the graphic novella by Keller and Neufeld, participating in social media can be highly compelling, even if it means giving away a plethora of information about yourself (apparently checking in on Foursquare enough times to become “mayor” of a space is enough to overcome any feelings of hesitation). For those who don’t participate in the technology at all, it can feel isolating: “Once enough people reveal their information, then NOT revealing your information becomes a stigma” (2015, p. 12). There is also a form of pressure that can happen when a person doesn’t have social media accounts: people may think or act like that person is weird for choosing to abstain.

Many of the services that are touted as time-saving and efficient, such as Amazon Go, are actually tracking insane amounts of data on each user. Of course, it’s clear that Amazon is on a mission to take over the world (and no one seems to be upset about it), but people should at least be on the alert about a service that is keeping tabs on users in multiple ways. Using Amazon Go would mean providing the company with data on your physical location, your buying and eating habits, and your credit card information. The convenience of it all (not having to stand in line to check out, not having to interact with another human being), as well as the novelty, is what consumers will focus on, but what if Amazon’s databases are broken into and suddenly a hacker knows everything about you? Not worth the convenience after all.

There are also, of course, the new types of technology that have recently begun to invade homes: Google Home, Amazon Echo, ivee, etc. Here are some very worrying default settings for the Echo (and the other devices work similarly): past recordings are kept to improve answers the for future questions; location services are activated, the better to suggest nearby stores and restaurants; and the microphone is ALWAYS ON (Studio One Networks, 2016). These settings can all be changed, but will the average consumer know/care to do that?

In this day and age, everyone needs to be aware of, and protective of, their privacy. It is all too easy for both corporations and the government to keep track of and use data that is collected on the average citizen. Knowing the ease with which your movements, preferences, beliefs, habits and more can be recorded and tracked, it is the responsibility of every person to, at the very least, be aware of the accessibility of their individual data. People can decide for themselves how much or how little to reveal through their use of products and websites, but it is important for everyone to question the necessity of the data they are putting out into the world. Knowledge of this, as in most cases, is power.



Boyd, D. & Crawford, K. (2012). “Critical questions for big data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon.” Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 662–679. 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Keller, M. & Neufeld, J. (2015). “Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data.” Al Jazeera America.

Payton, T. & Claypoole T. (2014). Privacy in the age of big data: Recognizing threats, defending your rights, and protecting your family. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Studio One Networks. 2016. Expert Q & A: How private is the new Amazon Echo? Retrieved from

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