More than 2,500 years ago, during his trial for impiety and corrupting the young, the Greek philosopher Socrates famously proclaimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.” [6.1] This was widely viewed as a defiant statement to the court that he had no intention of ceasing his self-described role as a gadfly in Athenian society. His clear lack of repentance contributed to the ensuing guilty verdict and a sentence of death by hemlock cocktail.
It’s interesting to speculate on whether Socrates would think that the overexamined life is worth living. In the two-plus decades since the popularization of the World Wide Web in 1993-95, the capacity of corporations and governments to collect and analyze data about every aspect of our lives — activities, interests, politics, hobbies, health, etc. — has absolutely exploded. Much of the damage to our privacy, of course, is selfie-inflicted, since we use digital devices (particularly smartphones) and social media to share ever-larger amounts of data about ourselves, our families, and our friends. And ever more rapidly, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is making it possible to capture data from any physical object to which sensors can be affixed. Thanks to rapid advances in miniaturization, that includes pretty much everything we can manufacture.
The collection of these vast mountains of data would be meaningless without the capability to store it and analyze it. Tremendous advances in server space and processing power are turning “data mining” into a multibillion dollar industry that will fundamentally reshape many of our social institutions — manufacturing, marketing, health care, urban planning, anti-terrorism, politics, online dating, you name it.
We are only just beginning to assess the myriad ways in which data mining will challenge our concept of personal privacy. In the meantime, we should keep in mind another classical statement that is even more relevant today than it was when it was first penned over 2,000 years ago: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (“Who will watch the watchmen?”). [6.2] What mechanisms can we put in place to better monitor what data is collected, how it is gathered, who has access to it, and how it will be used?
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