A double-edged sword: Big Data Profiling

When the whole world was on Facebook’s neck due to “data misappropriation” by Cambridge Analytica, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ignorance of the masses and moreso the people we elect into our governments. Their technology know-how is stinking and I think it is high time they all went to classes to gain some concepts regarding the trends in technology. Data is the new oil in the sense of its value but just like oil, data is in two different forms: crude and refined data. Crude data, just like crude oil, is useless and so every company that wants to derive value from data has to refine it. When we refine oil, we end up with kerosene, petrol, diesel among many others; the same can be said of crude data.

A company like Facebook collects data in its crude form and warehouses the data for refining. This crude data has details of which posts you like or comment on, which videos you like watching, which pages you visit, which people you follow or befriend, at what time you visit Facebook among many other things. This data is useless in its crude form but when refined, we can know if you are a potential rapist, murderer or terrorist; we can know if you are a liberal or a conservative or even if you are likely to develop diabetes in the future — that is a bit far-fetched but it is true anyway. This refined data has your profile — a set of insightful details about you that when correctly used, can help improve your experience but if wrongly used, can lead to your destruction.

Well, thanks to big data, we can know that Kamau, Kiprotich, Onyango and Hamina spoke and what they said were idiotic; from their profiles, they all love Cardi B songs, they all watch Nickelodeon even though they are in their late 20s, they all support Arsenal and they all spend 5 hours on social media a day. Even though you haven’t talked to help us know if you are stupid or not, your profile shows that you also like Cardi B songs, you are an Arsenal supporter, you like Nickelodeon and spend 6 hours on social media. By intuition, you — my friend — are an idiot because you seem to do things that only idiots do. This — being just an example (sorry Cardi B fans) — is a typical example of how your profile can get so large that the systems end up knowing things about you that you yourself know not about.

We are not here to discuss how profiling is done but rather to understand the power that he who owns such data wields. With this power, companies like Facebook and Google know me to an extent that I no longer have to worry about what to read online — I simply open my news app and all I have are all the best tech news that I care about. With this power, these companies have built a behemoth of a business that does targeted ads to users — gone are the days I used to see an ad about Halloween attires — they know I am a Kenyan and Kenyans don’t celebrate Halloweens. This is knowledge we already know and I am not here to tell us what we already know so let’s ask ourselves the real questions: if this massive profile gets into the hands of a government body, what can they do with it?

Our journey takes us to the first stop here at home (Kenya) where our government’s NIIMS initiative in the name of Huduma Number promises a lot of goodies. In the words of Dr. Kibicho, “Huduma Namba consolidates all these data to arrive at the single source of truth regarding a Kenyan. It is a useful tool for the government to use in planning, social services, and project resource allocation.” NIIMS has lots of functions that space will not allow me to enumerate but the goodies promised by Huduma Namba are nothing but incredible: with the consolidated user profiles, the government will be able to easily, efficiently and effectively handle national planning, offer social services, better allocate resources to regions and plan project infrastructure. Look at it this way: why should we allocate a lot of money to Kiambu County simply because it has a high population? Can’t we derive more insightful information about the place other than the numbers that can easily let us know how much they actually should be allocated with respect to the other counties? Kiambu might have a lot of population but what percentage of its population lives under poverty level — one dollar a day? What percentage of its population is unemployed? What percentage of its population are pensioned? What percentage are in the informal sector? How many hospitals does it have? What are their previous spending habits? All these are factors that can help decide the resource allocation to various regions other than size and population. The problem is that the data we have with regards to these details are crude. Huduma Namba promises to let us know which one is petrol and which one is diesel and hence help us ensure that we don’t pump in petrol to a diesel-engine car. If this is not a noble thing for a government to do then what is? My only problem is that IPRS promised similar things but we no longer hear about it. What happened? That is beyond the scope of this article. That sounds revolutionary, doesn’t it?

Let us take a deeper look into what the others are doing and borrow a leaf from them. India has tried a similar thing when it introduced the Aadhaar card with the promise that it would be used to manage nearly everything in the life of Indians like opening bank accounts until September of 2018 when the country’s supreme court limited its scope. India’s case might not be a big problem as it is led by the great PM Narendra Modi so let us take a walk to Caracas — Venezuela where, on the throne, sits Derth Vader himself — President Nicolas Maduro.

Just like Darth Vader learned his dark ways from Emperor Sheev Palpatine of Naboo, Maduro had his mentor in the name of former Venezuelan President Chavez and now the Chinese autocrat — President Xi Jinping. With great power comes great responsibility and that is why we must be weary when such vast dataset falls in the hands of he who wields the dark force. With the help from Chinese giant ZTE and mentoring from Beijing, Maduro introduced what they call the “carnet de la patria” or “fatherland card” — a replica predecessor of the Kenyan Huduma Number. The card is used in service delivery to Venezuelans and include services like government subsidized food, health among many other social services and programs the government offers its citizens. But Maduro is not just interested in service delivery; according to a Reuters report, the Venezuelan government has the card collecting and transmitting information about its citizens — information that they use to monitor and spy on the citizens helping them know their financial records, health records and even voting history.

Here is the catch — president Maduro is using the data to determine who should or should not receive resources in the country. It has been noted that Maduro is now able to know who voted for him — his loyalists and deliver resources to them leaving the others with nothing to enjoy. It is a punishment scheme whereby loyalists are rewarded and non-loyalists punished by the Maduro government. With this profiled data, Maduro now decides that non-loyalists don’t receive their pensions (which is technically their savings anyway) and have no access to subsidized food. In deed the government goes ahead to fire from government jobs, any government employee who the data identify as being opposed to the Maduro regime.

That is just the tip of the ice berg; with citizens so profiled, politicians can now use the data for their own political gains — just like they did with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Blackmail, identity theft and discrimination are among the many things my mind can think of when it comes to these profiles being in the hands of a bad guy player. Instead of politicians now using filled stadiums to know if Mombasa people really support them or not, they can use the collected data to get the insights and hence decide to “punish” them through resource deprivation as it is done in Venezuela. Just as it is done in Venezuela, getting a job would no longer be purely based on experience but on your support for the regime.

We have seen our regime do worse things like arresting anyone who appears opposed to them — with this new power we are giving them through data, the extent of misuse is as far as my imagination can go (hint: my imagination has no end). It is important that, as a nation, we get to know what might happen in the future and prepare for them. My last article talked about “Plan B” — this is a call for a Plan B; a self-protection mechanism. Should this data fall into the wrong hands or finds its way into misuse as already highlighted, how prepared are we to handle such situations? The Europeans have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR); what does Kenya have? Absolutely nothing have we when it comes to data protection policies — that is a great point of concern everyone should have.

The greatest strength of big data is also its greatest weakness — profiling. In the right hands, profiling gives us the best intelligence to serve you better. In the wrong hands, profiling gives us the best intelligence to make your life a hell on earth

Just ask the Americans and Europeans and then ask the Venezuelans and the Chinese.

“Careful we must be. Precautions we must take for once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” ~ Master Yoda

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