Add Big Data to the things the Supreme Court Justices know when they see them

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that searching cell phones from arrested individuals requires a search warrant has been described as “Bold. Landmark. Sweeping.” (I love Nina Totenberg’s reporting, by the way). Commentators have been discussing the precedent set for fourth amendment rights, digital privacy, comparison to historical judgements, civil liberties, yadda yadda yadda. Sure, that’s important and all, but let me add a different filter with which to view the decision.

The Supreme Court validated one of the fundamental premises of Big Data: that for many kinds of data at some point quantity becomes quality.

This is touched upon in a nice summary article by Dara Lind of Vox.com, which contains quotes from the judgement that show the Court’s reasoning about why we should treat cell phones as different from other kinds of objects one might find on a person at arrest. Let me reproduce a few here:

“Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”

and

“The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet.”

On the one hand, this seems obvious. But on the other hand, I think the Justices are expressing a deeper truth, one that goes beyond cell phones, selfies and sexting. Technology has facilitated the ease of both storing huge amounts of data and deriving meaning from those data. And as the amount of data one analyzes increases, meaning grows in a non-linear way.

This is the promise of Big Data, after you cut away all the hype. The belief that novel, previously unknowable insights can arise if you get a large enough collection of data together. And for all the worry that the Supreme Court, populated as it is by a, um, mature panel of jurists, might not have a good understanding of the impact of technology, they have instead demonstrated that, once again, they knew it when they saw it.

 

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