Yet one question that is only just starting to be discussed is whether the public is aware that their tweets, their Facebook posts and their Wikipedia edits are being sucked up by academics, private companies, the Pentagon, and even the CIA. In the modern world, people often do not think twice about tweeting their dinner plans, broadcasting their political opinion, or posting updates about a street protest.
Even people who avoid Twitter or Facebook may be contributing information in ways they didn’t realise: a product review on Amazon, a comment on a news site or even something a simple as a search on their smart phone can all be collected and analysed.
“People have become jaded to the information overload,” says Mark Abdollahian, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University, who also works with a private company that creates political forecasting models. And it is not just social media: Abdollahian points to the latest iPhone’s popular new Siri voice application, which sends data back to Apple, where it is analysed along with other user information.
All of this data, whether from social media or smart phone searches, is being analysed by someone for some purpose, whether to predict a political protest, a stock price, or even just to figure out what restaurant you’re trying to find.
“Your queries go in there to make a better user experience. What do people do with the information?” Abdollahian says. “That’s the question we all need to ask.”