Big Data in Society: Security, Terrorism, Conflict and Intervention

By Nadine Rabie, Martina Hysi, Vincent Jerosch-Herold, and Nour Gammoh

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” -George Orwell, 1984


Why is Big Data Relevant to Society?

The renowned book Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell illustrates some of people’s main concerns pertaining to the phenomena of government control demonstrated through “spying” methods. When it was first published in the post-world era, it was viewed as an extremist perspective of what the world could look like if there was a larger emphasis on government surveillance. Although back then it was perceived as a far-reaching analysis, it is currently becoming more and more prevalent due to many different societal developments. This pertinence exists as a manifestation of big data and its societal context.

Security versus Freedom

In the more technologically advanced world we live in today, there are more concerns pertaining to whether priority should be given to security or to freedom. For example, there were, and still continue to be, major debates about governmental surveillance in all its basic forms ranging from camera surveillance to eavesdropping on citizens’ conversations. This brings up an interesting question: is it worth sacrificing one’s own freedom at the expense of the overall security of the society as a whole? People’s initial response tends to be ‘yes’. However, when this relates to individuals, they tend to change their view and not want any governmental security involvement because they would view it as a breach of privacy. Contrary to that, there seems to be a general consensus among politicians and government officials that the utilization of big data results in a major breakthrough in the security arena. This can be seen especially in the United States through the NSA and CIA. There tends to be a prominent perspective that using big data even if it implies espionage is acceptable because it prevents terrorism. picture1

Dichotomy: Trust and Control

As George Orwell suggests in 1984 there is a clear dichotomy between trust and control. To further elaborate, trust can erode control and vice-versa. By considering a Machiavellian dilemma delineated under the general statement “trust is good, control is better. Trust, but verify” and on the opposing camp “control is good but trust is better. Control destroys trust.”

The commonality between these two thoughts is that they both rely on “positive expectation”, either on the benevolence of human nature or the strength of the imposed structure. These expectations on how humans will act or should act allows for the broad categorization of individuals and therefore reducing the need for constant oversight.

For example, we can see that by looking at the basic course structure of attendance. Some professors at this university impose harsh standards that obligate students to attend every class or face the possibility of failing. On the other hand, other professors believe in allowing students to decide if they want to attend, based on how beneficial they perceive the class to be. However, reality often places us somewhere in the middle, where students choose to miss some classes and attend others based on their daily demands or motivation to study. By looking at this simple example, one can evidently conclude that finding a balance between trust and control might be more beneficial. However, this proves to be difficult when discussed in more broad and complex terms like society. Of course, there is a constant fear by governments that giving more trust to citizens would result in more domestic or even international violence. On the other side of the argument is the citizens’ growing concerns with being controlled and constantly watched which obviously, could lead to trust erosion.


Taking a brief look at game theory, more specifically, prisoner’s dilemma, could explain why trust is an issue. Although most people would like to trust others, this requires a leap of faith and easily results in failure, or at best disillusionment. Despite its elusive nature, trust is an essential part of human interactions and most societies would likely fail without. Therefore, it is essential that people trust one another, but achieving this level of trust can prove challenging with the threat of defection very likely if cooperation is not achieved.

A small social experiment could be used to further elaborate how trust is the foundation of many social systems and societies. Let us take a moment and consider all people who have access to our personal information, ranging from name, birth date, nationalities, and even social security numbers. Now, let us take another minute and consider the likelihood for this information to be breached with intent for abuse by certain entities. With these thoughts in mind, this provides different implications for business. For example, take into consideration the role of data as a currency and potential opportunities like direct personalized advertising on Facebook. Dwelling into a darker theme, think contemplate the instance of data abuse from corporate espionage and hiking simply for purposes of misinformation.

5th V in Defining Big Data

Big data is usually defined in terms of volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Looking at it from a more critical perspective, we are able to add another ‘v’ on there: vulnerability. The mere existent of big data, circumscribing citizens’ information and even governments’, could put them in vulnerable position. As aforementioned, data can be abused, misused, and mishandled by corporations. Therefore, it is crucial to think about the security implications that come hand in hand with the use of big data.

Conclusion/Happy Note

It would be naïve to assume that all use of big data leads to some kind of security threat. By considering more recent world events, we can see how it can actually play a positive role. Firstly, let us examine the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Thanks to Facebook, both Tunisians and Egyptians were able to coordinate protests among themselves. Facebook was not only used to communicate time and places, but rather, it illustrated the violence that was being imposed by the governments and therefore persuaded citizens to go to the streets and revolt. Additionally, we can consider whistle blowers, like Edward Snowden and how they can bring attention to possibly corrupt organizations or officials between us. Although these examples are very diverse in nature, they can both be used to encapsulate the enormous power of information to free oppressed societies and to create a more transparent global environment.


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3 thoughts on “Big Data in Society: Security, Terrorism, Conflict and Intervention

  1. I like your topic a lot. Especially nowadays, with security and terrorism being very prominent issues, big data becomes ever more important in managing threats. However, it is a controversial issue in many societies, when it comes to surveillance.
    I love your idea of the 5th v. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how your project plays out in your presentation. Good luck!


  2. I really like your choice of topic. Especially nowadays, with security and terrorism being very prominent issues, big data becomes ever more important in managing threats. However, it is a controversial issue in many societies, when it comes to surveillance.
    I love your idea of the 5th v. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how your project plays out in your presentation. Good luck!


  3. In an interesting Ted Talk called “What do we do with all this Big data?”, Susan Etlinger, an analyst from Altimeter Group – which is “an independent research and strategy consulting on disruptive technology trends” – talks about the critical thinking skills we need to develop as the role of Big Data in our society grows increasingly bigger and more influential.

    She discusses the ramifications of a data-abundant society, how we can maximize its potential and minimize its threats. While doing so, she makes various references to Orwell and Huxley.

    It is a very eye-opening Ted Talk, and similarly to your blogpost, ends with a happy note 🙂

    Here you can find the link to the Ted Talk:
    And if you’re interested in knowing more about what Susan Etlinger’s company does in regards to disruptive technology trends, you can visit their website at:


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