He knows your every future move

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From Mr Karl Palmås.

Not just watching – foreseeing

Sir, Philip Stephens is correct in stating that “western societies have still to grapple with the way so-called big data has upended familiar notions of privacy and liberty” (“How to find the needle in Snowden’s haystack”, February 14). However, there is one further point that may be added to Mr Stephens’ list of concerns.

The contemporary modes of surveillance are unprecedented in terms of predictive powers. Vast data sets and sophisticated algorithms enable snoops to anticipate the future actions of surveilled subjects. Nevertheless, the Snowden affair is still discussed in terms of Big Brother merely watching us. In fact, something more profound is going on: today, Big Brother may know us better than we know ourselves.

This development opens up a gamut of issues, ranging from the philosophical (what about individual agency and free will?) to the technical (can these systems actually deliver useful foresight?). At the very minimum, however, citizens deserve an updated discussion of what is at stake. Privacy has become more than a matter of protecting one’s present self from snooping; it is also about keeping one’s future to oneself.

Karl Palmås, Associate Professor, Innovation and Social Change, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden

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