Alex Karp and Kira Radinsky on Finding the Balance Between the Two. Big data is a concept that’s reshaping how companies and governments do business. What it means for privacy can be tough to understand.
To get a clearer picture, The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Krim spoke with two executives on the leading edge of data analytics: Alex Karp, co-founder and chief executive of Palantir Technologies, which originally focused on using data to track terrorists and has now spread into many other fields, and Kira Radinsky, chief technology officer and co-founder of SalesPredict, which crunches data about a business’s customers to help them optimize sales.
Here are edited excerpts of the discussion:
MR. KRIM: Talk a little bit about the coverage and criticism sometimes of what companies like yours do in the fields of surveillance and scooping up data.
MR. KARP: The general critique is that you will move from a predicated-based analysis—i.e., I have some suspicion—into a nonpredicated-based analysis—I have no suspicion, but I can discover you’re involved in criminal behavior based on a pattern you’re throwing off.
In reality there are certain kinds of terror attacks or criminality that to stop them, you move to nonpredicate-based searches. If you’re looking at a terrorist attack in Iraq, you don’t look just for predicates. You look for nonpredicate-based analysis that allows you to find these people and then drill down.
There are very few people who are against that happening outside America or on the battlefield. There are many people, including myself, that are against a system where it’s hard to tell whether it’s a predicate- or a nonpredicate-based analysis. And where there’s no way to verify whether the government is doing predicate- or nonpredicate-based analysis and who are the targets. This is why we spent three years building a system that makes it very difficult to move from one to the other without leaving a trail.
MR. KRIM: But in your work, do you not take advantage of nonpredicate opportunities when they’re offered to you?
MR. KARP: We do all the time in the context where they’re appropriate. So, for example, looking at cyber, if you want to figure out who intruded into my system, where did they come from, or is there an intrusion in my system, and if so, what country are they from? Obviously, that’s an appropriate use of a nonpredicate-based search. A nonappropriate use would be, say, at Palantir, I tell everyone, “You have a complete right to privacy inside my company,” and then I do nonpredicate-based searches on them all the time despite the fact I said I wouldn’t do it.
MR. KRIM: What are the privacy and broader societal concerns going forward that you wrestle with?
MS. RADINSKY: Businesses are less concerned about privacy because so much information is mostly open. You can estimate growth based on everything they publish about themselves. You can buy information about how much traffic gets to their website and infer how much are they putting in marketing and how fast they’re growing.
But I would like to say something about privacy in general. When we lose privacy, we gain so much more. For example, if we open all our medical data for everybody to have, we can have insights. People can analyze the data to find cures for diseases. One way to do this is deferential privacy, a way of letting people make statistical queries on some kind of records without seeing the records themselves.
So maybe we should think about how to democratize data. Then nobody’s going to have privacy concerns, because everybody’s going to have access to data.
MR. KARP: I don’t want everyone having access to all my data. We live in a society now where only people who are angels in high school can get elected. This is a huge problem. You can say, “We’re all going to get used to it,” but it’s already having huge consequences on our country. I kind of like the idea of being able to change who I am, have a personal life that’s not conformant with broader norms. And if you start making all these things public, it’s actually very hard to do. Do you want to explain to your mom how you live?
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