PeopleSmart Scholarship Contest: We Have a Winner!

Back in February, PeopleSmart announced an opportunity that caught the attention of high schoolers across the country. No, it had nothing to do with AP exams or prom venues. Instead, our exciting news pertained to something far more exciting: college. Earlier in 2014, PeopleSmart hosted its first ever scholarship contest that required the bright minds of our future to tackle one of three essay questions relating to social media, privacy, and identity. After careful deliberation, our judges have chosen a winner: Scott Ely

Scott recently graduated as the valedictorian of his class. He founded and led the debate team and served as president of the National Honor Society. Scott also was captain of the varsity tennis team and played a lead role in his high school’s production of Guys and Dolls. This March, Scott performed at Swing Central in Savannah, Georgia with the jazz orchestra. He is a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Merit and is an AP Scholar with Distinction. Scott plans to attend Harvard University this fall to study economics.

We’d like to extend our warmest gratitude to all the high school students who participated in this competition. We loved reading all the submissions and hearing your well-articulated opinions. Our future is in safe hands with many of the young leaders who took the time to research and write about one of today’s most critical topics.

Check out Scott’s article answering the prompt: Imagine you have the power to control technology and legislation around privacy. Propose an innovative, feasible, and successful solution to improve privacy.

Breaking Big Data

With the exponential increases in computing power, the proliferation of data processing has been immense. With cameras now ubiquitous in stores and public places, analysts are tracking our every move. Search giants including Google are tracking our every click. Governmental agencies are able to track and record all forms of communication. This attack on privacy is unprecedented and will expand further into every aspect of life in the coming years. The implications of immense data processing are still unknown but are beginning to highlight a pressing need for a new industry of personal privacy agents (PPAs).

The first job of these PPAs is to provide their clients with an awareness of their personal data being collected. Within a few years, all government agencies and most businesses will make use of facial recognition technologies. For public relations purposes, the government will flaunt the benefits of counter terrorism, and businesses will argue that monitoring consumer preference will provide better products, but using cameras in this way is a major invasion of privacy. The situation presents a move to an Orwellian society in which Big Brother watches over everyone while big business reaps the profits of understanding consumer preference and routine. The general public will need to have an understanding about what data is being collected, how it is being collected, and how data processing can negatively affect them. Personal privacy agents will provide information regarding data collection to make clients more aware and better prepared to avoid attacks on privacy.

In addition to providing information, PPAs will provide services to combat the expansion of data collection. With regard to facial recognitions technologies, PPAs will be experts in the field and provide appropriate suggestions in terms of facial coverings or other means by which to thwart recognition systems. A background in computer science will give PPAs the ability to design software for specific clients depending upon their needs to stop browsing history, cookies, and other pieces of data from being recorded.

With the recent revelations of NSA data collection of both domestic and international communications, it is likely that the Constitutional “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” will slowly fade away to extinction. The traditional understanding of privacy will evaporate under a ubiquitous system of data processing. Analysis of collected data gives government and business an easy identification of private information. A few years ago, a Harvard student showed that it was possible to identify individuals by using just 3 bits of information from the public health records in Massachusetts. Individuals are not only tracked through buying habits but also by medical diagnoses and predispositions to certain illnesses. It is alarming that such “confidential information” is readily available to the miners of big data.

Beyond questions of the ethics of collecting this data, there is a bigger question regarding the sale of this data as it is being collected. When metadata is sold, it becomes ever easier for all businesses to track and target potential consumers. Individuals become nothing more than an open book with a shrinking pocketbook. These are concerns that must be brought up before the attack on privacy has gone too far. We must be prepared to combat this onslaught, and an industry of PPAs for individual citizens will shortly materialize toward that end. We must prepare for this transition to reaffirm the Constitutional protection of privacy in all aspects of life. Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We should heed his timeless wisdom.