Dominikus BaurData Visualization

Big Data and the end of everyday cheating

Published: 2015/03/25

I'm currently thinking (and reading) a lot about the implications of a data-driven society. Data collection is taking a foothold in our daily lives, through social media but even more so through the internet of things. All of a sudden we're split into two beings: our good old physical selves and outsourced digital versions in the cloud.

Pundits like to emphasize the benefits of big data and algorithms to all of us (I assume with economic motivations). We'll get the end of theory and become better parents, friends and employees. These assurances usually leave the rest of us with a feeling of dread. The big data spectre hangs above us all and we're in fear of old drinking photos showing up in job talks or having our lives ruined by one stupid tweet. Also, we're facing a new data apartheid, with powerful data lords on the one side and us sheepish content generators on the other.

But what's interesting for our daily lives is that big data probably means the end of everyday cheating.

In the data-less days of yore we've learned to get away with various little transgressions: crossing a red traffic light at night, lying to your boss about the tedious report or secretly having a smoke hidden from your spouse and doctors. All small things without consequences. Till now.

Since everything will be sensorized, it will get substantially harder to create a favorable virtual identity. Various biosensors collect how little we actually move, location data shows how much time we spend at our favorite bar and our financial histories make it already hard to get a credit after wrongdoings. And with smart everything (cities, cars, fridges) nothing will be secret any more. Never tiring algorithms will catch every outlier in the data.

All of a sudden everyday cheating will be futile. The city captured your car's ID when crossing that red light, your boss knows that you spent three hours on Facebook instead of doing the report and your wearable air quality sensor rats you out to your spouse and doctors.

On the plus side, these micro big brothers could also mean an end to privilege. All charms and good looks won't help you land a job when the frightfully neutral algorithm deems you unworthy. Talking yourself out of a parking ticket becomes impossible with a machine. Knowing the right folks becomes useless when the data's against you.

Along the same lines I predict a rise in data tweaking: companies that specialize in adjusting your data to make it more positive by hiding your wrongdoings and creating fictional noise to fool the algorithms. It's the crypto wars of hackers against security companies all over again just this time about data integrity.

But the end of everyday cheating has a much more important implication for our society's integrity: we have to reevaluate laws and rules that at the moment only "work" because people can break them without consequence. Maybe that traffic light at that crossing really isn't necessary, maybe sleeping in means more productivity, maybe New Yorkers are actually quite capable of jaywalking without killing themselves.

In the end, it might make us at least more honest about ourselves.