Book Reviews: More On Big Data and Personal Data

In past posts I have discussed aspects of Big Data, and developments in wearable and sensor rich devices (e.g., Pentland’s Social Physics). And, of course, the gospel according to Brothers Jaron Lanier and Keven Kelley.

Two new books give us additional perspectives on the risks and uses of these technologies.

Payton and Claypoole give a broad view of how these multiple technologies converge, with a particular concern about the threat to privacy. Their perspective is sobering, though they aren’t nearly as radical as Lanier in their approach.

Havens gives us a different spin, taking powerful tools for behavioral surveillance, and trying to put them in the hands of the ordinary (surveilled) person. Furthermore, he couples this power to theories and methods from “positive psychology”, to try to help people increase their own happiness.


Privacy in the Age of Big Data: Recognizing Threats, Defending Your Rights, and Protecting Your Family by Theresa M. Payton and Theodore Claypoole (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

This book sets out to be a primer on “privacy”, and largely succeeds. A lot of the material is a textbook on the technical and legal background, presented in a careful style (with footnotes). As the authors comment,

“This book has not revealed any secrete scientific discoveries or confidential military programs, and has discussed only technological data already in use, for sale, or analyzed in public fora.” p. 240

If much of the material is familiar (and dry), it is still useful to have it collected in a coherent, well documented, and not overly strident form. The material is very alarming, but the tone is not at all alarmist (for once).

The overall coverage links many trends, showing how sensor rich mobile devices, connected by (not necessarily secured) networks, are filling up databases with Big Data. Traces from many sources combine to paint detailed pictures of individual lives, and potentially support inferences and predictions. These techniques put individuals in the power of many interests, including companies, criminals, police, and other people.

It was difficult to get through all of the material, especially the generic advice about network and computer security. The advice is generally sound, though you really should know all this already. Many people don’t know, though, which is why they include the information.

The most important contributions are the broad picture view of all the ways contemporary technology is intruding, and some of the detailed examples of the privacy implications. For example, as biometric data is becoming easy to obtain, and starting to be used for identification and other purposes, it is useful to have a “threat analysis” to sketch out potentially harmful or abusive uses of these data. I hadn’t thought about identity theft by stealing biometric signatures, which is kind of spooky, but, as they say, impossible to undo. You can’t just change your retina like you can change a password.

The authors are pretty clear that they are not luddites (or even “Amish”), recognizing the inevitability of certain technologies, especially mobile devices, networks, and sensing. The challenge they see is how to make these systems work more like we want them to.

If there is one thing that needs to be done, it is to make the collection and retention of data about people more visible, and more under control of the individuals. This means “opting in”, and probably being paid for providing data. These views are not inconsistent with Jaron Lanier, and Havens “Hacking H(app)iness” (below)”.

In one area, their advice is, well, let’s say, “culturally tone deaf”. In order to protect yourself from identity theft, you should create your own “brand”, and actively promote it. (The goal is to be well known, so people won’t be fooled by spoofers.)

Ick! In order to not be screwed by the Internet, we have to accept the alien values of this culture? And sink time and effort into performing the role of “having a personal brand”? Really?

Overall, a valuable contribution, even if there is “nothing new” here.

Hacking H(app)iness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World by John C. Havens (Penguin, 2014).

If we take the lines of Pentland’s Social Physics <<link>> meets Payton & Claypool’s Privacy (above), and apply the technology to ourselves, what do we get? Me spying on me? Or, to put it more positively, enhanced self-awareness?

In this book, Havens focuses on a very self-centered and self-conscious application of mobile, sensor rich, devices. This book is aimed at a broad audience, and Havens is an experienced salesman, who presents the ideas packaged in examples and pithy one liners. It is effective as far as he goes, though you have to carefully unpack just about everything to make sure you know what he is talking about.

Havens advocates “conscious consumerism”, envisioning individuals owning their personal identity data, which they can sell or barter through online services. “Privacy isn’t dead, but requires being proactive—be accountable so the identity you broadcast is the one you mean to project.” P.82 This approach replaces the current opaque, theft-based system.


One should certainly read Jaron Lanier alongside Havens, to get a more rejectionist angle on this question. <> And obviously, you want to read Payton & Claypoole (above), and think very carefully about where this data is going and who can get at it.

Havens use the phrase “Big Data to Little Data”—evoking the importance of personal data which can be voluminous, but its about only one person. He is excited about personal self-tracking (“Quantified Self”?), “Seeing your life visualized in data can be extremely empowering.” p. 33

Havens has his own take on “virtual currency”, which he ties tightly to the general “tip” approach to commerce. He sees wearable AR apps as being used to tip people for being nice, or for being pitiful, or whatever. He calls this “life-tipping”, and mentions the notion of funding college education through such small scale transactions. Really? Here he makes the Bitcoinistas seem sophisticated.

He also seems to think that it is plausible and OK for platforms such as Facebook to issue currency (with absurdly usurious rake offs, of course). Not going to happen.

Havens is quite bent out of shape over the term “consumer” and its broad implications. No points awarded for originality here, we’ve been beefing about consumerism for more than 50 years now. Havens proposes to replace the passive and powerless “consumer” with the role of “creator”, which in most cases means “provider”.   (He also throws in a new term, “savorer”, to replace the low brow “consumer”.)

To implement this notion, he imagines much of public life to be dominated by micro transactions, with appallingly complex negotiations. For example, he imagines a formal negotiation about the right to use your image take in public, which involves hundreds of words exchanged via messaging, as well as web research. (p. 142)

This concept does not excite me, and I sincerely doubt it would work. Bear in mind that all this work is done for something like the price of a cup of coffee. I’m not sure that working hard for peasant wages is better than passive consuming—or just living life.

The interesting part of the book is putting the theory (however shaky intellectually) into practice. The H(app)athon Project uses smart phone active and passive sensing to try to increase happiness (well-being) by increasing flow and altruism. The design is based on “positive psychology” AKA “psychology of happiness”.

I’m not sure I totally agree with the philosophy here—my Irish ancestry makes me reject the notion that I, or anyone else, is supposed to be “happy”—but the application is interesting. He is taking a serious stab at integrating some of the great sociotechnical problems of the age: ubiquitous sensing, powerful aggregation and analytics (AKA “big data”), and out of control data brokering.

Furthermore, he couples the approaches identified by “happiness science”—particularly the importance of “flow” and altruism, and the “Beyond GDP” movement.

This mashup yields some clearly good ideas, such as ownership of personal information. He has some I’m-not-sure-about ideas, such as technologically boosted navel gazing (“quantified self”, and related). And he forsees absolutely creepy ideas about “accountability”, in which everyone is watching whether you are nice or not, and rewarding or punishing you.

I could quibble with the psychology here, but I’ll leave it for now. It’s close enough, and pretty harmless. I can’t quibble with the technology he describes, it is mostly on target. His economics are wobbly, and I sincerely doubt that most people will be willing to behave the way he imagines. In particular, I don’t think that micro payments are either economically or psychologically sustainable.

The deepest issue is really philosophical. It is fine to talk about increasing happiness, measuring happiness, and even sociotechnical vectors to promote “happiness”. But “happiness” isn’t the same thing to everyone, nor, for that matter are “altruism” and “flow”. Whose definition of “altruism” is going to be imposed? It can’t be “everybody gets to pick their own”, can it?

Similarly, I’m not sure that having my phone and computers track me constantly to feed back what happened (as opposed to what I remember/imagine happened), and model my “happiness” and/or “well-being” is going to make me happy. There is a good reason why people mis-remember their own actions: we have a cobbled together model of ourselves, which we support by selecting and warping recollection. Inserting data traces and analytics to displace this natural model building/defending isn’t necessarily a good idea.

Couple this discomfort with social pressures from others who are monitoring you in detail, and it sounds like hell to me. Even worse, we know the powerful will impose their will on the weak, but not vice versa. I suspect that bosses and politicians will be immune from “optimization”, while workers and citizens will be driven to “optimize” their life, “for the benefit of everyone”.

It is also interesting to compare Richard Sheridan’s “Joy, Inc.” with Havens’ “Happiness”. Both are building on similar psychological principles, and similar goals. But we see that Sheridan has a tighter focus (an organization that delivers high quality software), which Havens is more general, but also more oriented to an individual.

It is interesting that Sheridan is pretty firm about tracking behavior only in the work context, which is highly delineated. Havens is open to tracking behavior all the time everywhere.

Sheridan is also all about responsibility to others, which makes you happy. Havens would certainly agree that that is a good way to live, but he is open to a wider variety of ways to live, give, and be happy.


Interesting stuff.

The H(app)iness App isn’t out yet.  It will be interesting to evaluate it.

One hopes they will have a very hard look at the issues raised in Payton & Claypoole–what data is collected, where and how it is stored, and so on.   The last thing we need is a happiness app that is hacked and turned against us!

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