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Are we building a data genome?

Susan Etlinger
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Lately, I can't stop collecting examples of how data and algorithms have infused our daily lives. But it's not just the ads we click on or the items we place in shopping carts. Today, data carries intimate information about our bodies, finances, friends, interests, politics, family histories and emotions.

Here are some examples from the past few weeks:

  • Lawyers are using data from fitness devices as evidence in court cases [Dark Reading].
  • The FBI now considers retweets of ISIS content to constitute probable cause for terrorism charges [Huffington Post].
  • Facebook recently received a patent that would enable lenders to consider whether your social network makes you a good credit risk [CNN Money].
  • Google/Alphabet just received a patent that would enable it to search a video archive of your life [Huffington Post].
  • In case you happen to post anything to Facebook today with a smiling emoji, an LOL, a haha or a snarky hehe, guess what? Facebook knows you're laughing. (Also, if you're using LOL, you're probably old) [Marketplace and Facebook].

Taken collectively, these and other anecdotes illustrate just how pervasive--and intimate--data has become. But more than that, it shows how, without even realizing it, we are each creating a detailed and potentially permanent record of ourselves throughout our lifetimes (and beyond;) a data genome, so to speak.

Does that mean it will one day be possible--even common--to sequence virtually an entire life into a "digital blueprint?"

Before you go telling me I've been drinking too much coffee and watching too much Mr. RobotHumans and Black Mirror (all true, I admit), consider this: we already have the precedent of a "customer profile"; it's just the extent of that profile--what can and cannot be included, and under what circumstances--that will require careful oversight and negotiation over the coming years.

William Gibson once said, "The future is already here; it's just not very evenly distributed."

I'd argue that--at least with respect to data--the future is distributing itself faster and faster these days. We're actually lucky to have lived vicariously through the assorted paranoid visions of Huxley, Orwell, Dick, Gibson and others.