Bill Davidow: We’re being imprisoned by Big Data

Bill Davidow, partner emeritus at Mohr Davidow Ventures, has for years talked about the drawbacks of technology. Among other things, the former engineer and marketing executive at companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric wrote a book called “Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet,” which was published in 2011. Now he’s sounding the alarm about Big Data. He says it has put us in “algorithmic prisons.”

Corporations and governments, Davidow writes in The Atlantic, gather information about us that are being used in “newly insidious” ways. “Millions of Americans are now virtually incarcerated in algorithmic prisons,” he says. His arguments are similar to those frequently used by¬†privacy advocates: The information collected about us, mostly from the Internet, can lead to being rejected for loans, jobs, insurance. Or being put on no-fly lists. And don’t even get him started on surveillance, the automation of which has made it easier to build the algorithmic prisons he’s talking about: ” Not only can we expect to see a great increase in the number of algorithmic prisons, but thanks to cheaper and more efficient tools the value derived from establishing them will increase.”

What to do about this loss of freedom? Davidow says it would be great if we could opt out of having our information sold by advertisers. And if personal data could be destroyed within 48 hours of its collection. But he also acknowledges it’s complicated. Today’s consumer protections are inadequate, he says, and advocates for additional “carefully constructed restrictions.”

(By the way, some people voluntary go into the “prison” of which Davidow speaks. For example, the Placed app offers people free gift cards in exchange for tracking them everywhere they go. Placed reportedly has 125,000 users.)

Davidow isn’t entirely down on Big Data: “When algorithms get it right (and in general they do a pretty good job), they provide extremely valuable services to the economy. They make our lives safer. They make it easier to find the products and services we want.” And yes, in case you were wondering, Mohr Davidow invests in Big Data companies.


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  • I completely agree! Even the idea ofcloud integration is scary to me. What about the security of the data we have? What about the loss of local vendors and business partnerships?