“Big Data”: Guest Speaker Speaks on Surveillance, Privacy and Security Online and Across the World


On Thursday, February 19, Colgate hosted a talk given by Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky Dr. Jeremy Crampton titled, “Big Data Narratives: Surveillance and Privacy in the Age of the Algorithm.”

Colgate’s Geography Department, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Geography and Chair of the Geography Department Adam Burnett and Associate Professor of Geography Peter Scull hosted the talk. Scull introduced Crampton, explaining that the Geography Department wanted to bring the topic of “Big Data” to Colgate to help students understand the importance of technology in collecting data. Geography and the study of the movement of organismal populations have improved because of new technology, such as satellites. In addition, the United States, among other countries, has become dependent on technology to improve people’s lifestyles. However, during his lecture, Crampton argued that there is a negative side of “Big Data” that needs to be recognized.

Crampton began the talk by introducing the newest home product, Amazon Echo. The Echo can record people as they talk and sell their voices to outside buyers. Crampton also discussed Sony’s cyber invasion by North Korean hackers and how cyberattacks are going to become more common. The technologies that improve our knowledge about the world can be damaging to personal privacy because most of the data collected about humanity nowadays occurs without consent. 

Crampton said that by connecting to the Internet, people should understand that they are under surveillance at all times. Companies that we provide our information to, such as Facebook, have the ability to sell our profile pages to third parties. Crampton pointed out that phone location can be found by tracking nearby wireless Internet (WiFi) locations, hackers and governmental agencies are sparking cyber warfare and governmental funds go into tracking telephone calls and using drones to track human movement.

“[The talk] certainly made me aware of the numerous ways different technologies and organizations can easily gain access to my personal information. I was also shocked and a little frightened to hear that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts seven thousand businesses will be flying drones within the next five years, particularly because there are currently fairly weak privacy settings and regulations,” sophomore Kaylie Patacca said. 

The increase in drone use is related to how these mechanisms are being used by the United States government. According to Crampton, this year, the Intelligence Budget Data has requested over $70 billion for collecting information through surveillance and drones, with only $17.9 billion going to the military. The rest of the money funds the National Intelligence Program (NIP), which utilizes surveillance and activity-based intelligence (ABI) to track human dynamics, or the ways in which humans move and behave. 

Surveillance can range from collecting information on the Internet to hacking phone applications to track movement and location. ABI is a movement-based program, using surface based drones to physically collect information on human dynamics. Many government agencies use these techniques, such as the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency. The NIP, however, uses drones to purely collect information about human dynamics.

“What resonates most strongly with me is the apparent absence of choice of the individual, the consumer,” senior Jennifer Godbout said. “The fast-paced world we live in necessitates these devices that perpetually track us and feed our information to third party entities. It’s frustrating, because it’s no longer a question of being watched, but whether there is anything to really be done about it.” 

As a result of our new technological world, Crampton explained that the definition of privacy has to be altered. We can no longer believe that our personal information is private. Instead, we should think about who controls our information and what those outside parties do with that information. 

Crampton thinks that the companies extracting and contracting location data should be held more accountable than they currently are. 

According to Crampton, everyday people are unaware of the lack of privacy they hold because of the technology we depend on. Instead, Crampton wants people to look into the actual contracts they are binding into with companies, such as Amazon or Facebook, and be given real information by the government as to the extent to which they are being monitored.

According to Crampton, the method of collecting data is insignificant, but those violating people’s privacy should be held accountable. 

Mass data collection has the potential to be harmful in what Crampton terms as “SkyNet,” an interconnected web where the study of human dynamics and accumulation of personal information all converge. 

The collection of all this information should be used to improve human lifestyles but will cause privacy laws to be violated.

If we get to the point where SkyNet is a reality, Crampton thinks that we need to take extra precautions to control our confidentiality. “Big Data” collection can be beneficial but also a real threat to personal discretion.