Chomsky, Gellman talk Big Data at MIT Conference
Famed philsopher and journalist discuss Big Data, who's to blame for its weaknesses, and what it means for our future
By Grant Hatchimonji, Senior Editor
November 15, 2013 — CSO — Big Data is arguably the biggest buzz term in security today, so it came as no surprise that Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman had no shortage of words on the subject during their opening panel at MIT's Engaging Data 2013 Conference.
During the panel, which was moderated by The Economist's Ludwig Siegele, Chomsky and Gellman extolled the potential virtues and derided the flaws of the various powers that be – ranging from service providers to government institutions – having such a comprehensive collection of our data. Chomsky, for one, could recognize the shortsighted usefulness of Big Data, but suggested that greater problems lie beyond that.
"Big Data is a step forward," said Chomsky. "But our problems are not lack of access to data, but understanding them. [Big Data] is very useful if I want to find out something without going to the library, but I have to understand it, and that's the problem."
Gellman – who has firsthand experience with Big Data thanks to his reporting on leaked classified documents on the NSA provided to him by Edward Snowden – seemed more convinced of the practical benefits of Big Data in theory, but argued that the real trouble with it is the "vastly increased prospects of surveillance." To that point, he touched on the fact that keeping individual records is often the goal of those who are collecting the data. He pointed out that as a journalist, he could stand to benefit from unlimited access to specific public call records, especially if he knew that those who were making the calls wouldn't find out. That philosophy, he said, is the same reason why agencies want to collect their data.
"But we've never had that debate over what the lines should be and how that relates to me and our founding principles," he said.
Gellman went on to explain how the big data creates a secrecy element that obviously favors the watchers over the watched. It's no secret that all institutions prefer to keep their secrets secret, but as Big Data causes us to become more transparent, it causes companies like Google or government institutions to become more opaque.
"We're living with a one-way mirror where we can't debate it because we don't fully understand it," he said.
Chomsky was in accordance, saying, "Power remains strong when it stays in the dark. When it's exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate."