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What characterizes the big data phenomenon and how does it affect people’s lives?

What characterizes the big data phenomenon and how does it affect people’s lives?

This is the subject of the doctoral thesis by Sara Suárez Gonzalo, supervised by Frederic Guerrero Solé, professor with the Department of Communication, which has won first prize for research awarded by the Catalan Audiovisual Council.

10.03.2020

Imatge inicial

The term “big data” emerged in the late 1990s, but did not become popular until 2013, when Snowden uncovered several cases of “surveillance” led by NASA, in collaboration with major technology companies like Google and Facebook. This created a strong, though confusing climate of social alert as to the dangers of exploiting mass data: people are increasingly concerned about their privacy, but it appears they do not act accordingly.

The doctoral research carried out by Sara Suárez Gonzalo, a member of the Research Group on Political Communication, Media and Democracy (POLCOM), which was supervised by Frederic Guerrero Solé, professor with the Department of Communication, has won first prize for research at the 31st edition of the Catalan Audiovisual Council Award. The research was based on the question: what characterizes the big data phenomenon and how does it affect people’s lives?

Big data technology is becoming increasingly opaque, more uncontrollable and unpredictable, even for its own developers, and citizens and democratic institutions are losing control over it

Big data technologies play a central role in the economic, political and cultural spheres of European societies. However, their development and social implementation are strongly marked by the economic interests of the major technology companies worldwide that collect most of the digital data we generate daily. In this context, big data technology is becoming increasingly opaque, more uncontrollable and unpredictable, even for its own developers, and citizens and democratic institutions are losing control over it.

“Right from the beginning of my research I realized that there is something unfair about how these technologies are being developed and integrated and how this affects not just one person but anyone”

 ”I have never been concerned only with scandals about “stolen” data or data used for illegal or undesirable purposes, but also less “noisy” cases in which data are obtained or used legally and with people’s explicit consent”, Suárez asserts. ”Right from the beginning of my research I realized that there is something unfair about how these technologies are being developed and integrated and how this affects not just one person but anyone. So I concentrated on trying to define this injustice”, she adds.

The increasing inequality of power, which leads compliance with the fundamental right to personal data protection to be subject to the “goodwill” of the “digital giants”

“The main conclusion of this research is that the general context of big data mining in Europe, basing myself on the republican theory of freedom, gives rise to what I call “data domination”: the increasing inequality of power, which leads compliance with the fundamental right to personal data protection to be subject to the “goodwill” of the “digital giants”, Suárez highlights in her work.

Factors that make such domination possible

First, these companies sell products and services that have become necessary to lead a normal life in advanced societies. “Imagine what would happen if you had to stop using all of the products of the company Google. That would also mean not exchanging emails with Gmail accounts, for example”, Suárez comments.

To use these products, we must consent individually for the companies that market them to collect and use our data. If we do not, we would not be able to use their products and services, and they could not exist, since they feed from the data. That is why eluding their power is not as easy as it might seem. But, also, the dissemination of “our” personal data is not something exclusively “personal”. “To give you an example, if your friends use Instagram, they can also provide the platform with information about you”, the researcher warns.

It is an inequality that affects us as individuals and as a society that we cannot control individually. It is a structural problem  

The thesis Big data, Power and Freedom. On the social and political impact of massive surveillance was carried out in the framework of the doctoral programme in Communication at UPF and was defended on 16 December 2019. The work consists of five articles published in scientific research journals and a report linking and interpreting the results. The research analyses a number of factors that determine the overall context in which massive data mining takes place and how it affects compliance with the fundamental rights to privacy and personal data protection. Among other things, the author examines the idea of privacy on which the European data protection regulation is based, the business model of the large technology corporations, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case during Donald Trump’s election campaign, and the media representation of the “racist” chatbot, Tay, launched by Microsoft on Twitter.  

Related work:

Sara Suárez Gonzalo, Big data, Power and Freedom. On the social and political impact of massive surveillance, tesi doctoral inèdita defensada a 16 de desembre del 2019 a la Universitat Pompeu Fabra i dirigida per Frederic Guerrero Solé.

TDX: https://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/668235,
e-Repositori UPF: https://repositori.upf.edu/handle/10230/43273

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Frederic Guerrero Solé
Sara Suárez Gonzalo

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