Big Data is Watching You: If Predictive Analytics Still Doesn’t Creep You Out, Watch This Ad

The debate over predictive analytics in child welfare will continue right after this important message:

So, what do we have here?  A bunch of data analysts, presumably working for a firm that sells sporting goods, are spying on a woman’s recreational habits. They have amassed so much data and their algorithms are so wonderful that it’s like having a camera watching her 24/7. Not only do they know her preferences, they know exactly why she prefers one sport over another and exactly what she’ll do next.

In other words, they’re stalking her.

But this is not presented as a warning of the dangers of predictive analytics. On the contrary, virtual stalking is what they’re selling.

That’s because the commercial is not aimed at consumers – such as the woman being stalked. The target audience is potential stalkers; in this case people who want to sell her stuff.

The maker of the stalking – er, analytics – software, and maker of the commercial, is SAP – described by this publication as one of the “market leaders” in predictive analytics and a potential competitor in the child welfare market.

Unlike the bland reassurances given when people raise concerns about predictive analytics, the commercial reveals the real mindset of some of the human beings pushing big data.

Opinion_Feature_ImageApparently, no one at SAP was creeped out by the ad’s Orwellian overtones. The slogan might as well have been “Big Data Is Watching You.” That alone ought to be enough to make anyone think twice about turning these companies loose in the child welfare field.

And it ought to make anyone think twice about giving this kind of power to secretive, unaccountable child welfare bureaucracies that have almost unlimited power to take away people’s children.

But in case that’s not enough, there’s also:

  • ProPublica’s expose of profound racial bias in a field far closer to child welfare than sporting goods: criminal justice.
  • The fact that when the highly touted predictive analytics program being tested in Los Angeles predicted a child would be the victim of a “critical incident,” it apparently was wrong 95 percent of the time.

There’s little harm in mistakenly telling a sporting goods salesperson to promote golf clubs to someone who’s more interested in soccer. There’s far more harm in telling a child protective services caseworker that a child is in grave danger when he’s not.

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly believed the author was conflating SAP and another, similar company, SAS, in a previous story and issued a correction removing that reference. The original sentence has been restored.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).