Can you be defamed by a search engine’s autocomplete algorithm? What happens when indigenous life experiences become data in the name of reconciliation? Could (and should) police use statistics, Minority Report-style to predict a crime?

These were some of the topics debated at a groundbreaking UNSW event on the challenges of big data which brought together global experts from fields ranging from law and criminology to science and technology, media studies, international relations, philosophy, computer science, anthropology and sociology.

One of the event’s three convenors, Associate Professor Lyria Bennett Moses, said the unique interdisciplinary summit aimed to connect researchers from a range of fields to debate issues arising from the diverse uses of data.

“These things tend to become fairly polarised around perspectives like ‘the NSA is evil’ or ‘big data will save us all’,” said Associate Professor Bennett Moses.

“The truth is that it is being used for some wonderfully beneficial things such as helping to find people buried in earthquakes, as well as for some more questionable purposes.”

Presented papers covered diverse ground ranging from private sector use of customer data, bank ‘dataveillance’ for governments, use of ‘hook-up apps’ to ‘optimise’ social relations and defamation by algorithm-driven search engine processes such as autocomplete.

The handling of Indigenous data by the colonial state, predictive policing, online dating and pandemic preparedness were also discussed at the December 10-12 proceedings.

Some of the papers will be collated for a special edition of the journal Big Data and Society to be published in 2017.

Though conventionally portrayed as a legal and policy issue, Associate Professor Bennett Moses said big data was not just about privacy or national security but had relevance to domains including science, anthropology and morality.

“A lot of our discussions weren’t just about legal issues but grew out of interdisciplinary conversations,” she said.

“Everyone came away from it with a sense that something special had happened.”

Funded by the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at UNSW Canberra, UNSW Law, and Harvard Law School’s Institute for Global Law & Policy, the Data Associations in Global Law and Policy initiative attracted some big names.

Professor Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, University of Michigan Professor Christian Sandvig and Meridian 180 thinktank founder Annelise Riles, a professor of law and anthropology at Cornell University, debated some of the big issues in a public event recorded by ABC Radio National.

RN’s Future Tense will broadcast the forum this Sunday and it is available online.

Professor Riles said governments and individuals were increasingly turning to big data not only for answers, but in search of questions themselves.

“We don't know what we are looking for, but maybe the full dataset can tell us,” she said, describing the phenomenon as a  “symptom” of lost confidence following the global financial crisis.

“I think that that idea that big data can save us from the failures of our expertise is not unique to finance,” she said.

“In fact, just for ordinary people, perhaps when we lose our confidence in how to choose a university or which flavour of ice cream to buy or how to choose a sexual partner, we suddenly turn to big data as a way of getting us out of our loss of expertise.”

“So I see this turn to big data as a symptom of our sense that perhaps we've lost our foundations in other areas.”

Professor Jasanoff said the rise of big data mirrored complex changes in the political dynamics of advanced Western societies and shifting concepts of identity.

“We have become ourselves trinities, each human being having the self that we are used to seeing and touching and holding, the phenotypic self, but also a genetic self side by side with that, and a data self,” she said.

“I think it's a fascinating area in which to think innovative legal and political thoughts because we really have created these entities in a kind of shadowy world and we don't know how to govern them.”

Amy Coopes