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Big data is a phrase that is misused frequently in popular media. (A lot of terms are misused by popular media, but I digress.) According to Wikipedia (totally legitimate, as we learned in lab last week): “Big data is a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate.” So what counts as big data? The information collected by PRISM? Certainly. (Hi, NSA!) The data used to develop targeted, behavioral advertising? Yes. But what about sensor data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)? That too! (Fun fact: The LHC records 25 petabytes per year, which accounts for less than 0.001% of its streamed sensor data.) What do these applications say about the morality of big data?

The discussion of the morality of any big data system reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Noam Chomsky: “As far as technology itself and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture, using it to crush somebody’s skull, the hammer can do either.” I believe this applies to big data: It is not inherently unjust, but the applications define its morality. Big data allows Google to notify me that I might be interested in My Little Pony plushies, but it also allows physicists to demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson.