The recent revelation that the National Security Agency collects the personal data of United States citizens, allies and enemies alike has broken the traditional model governing the bond between science and society. Most breakthrough technologies have dual uses. Think of atomic energy and the nuclear bomb or genetic engineering and biological weapons.
Let’s face it: Powered by the right type of Big Data, data mining is a weapon. It can be just as harmful, with long-term toxicity, as an atomic bomb. It poisonstrust, straining everything from human relations to political alliances and free trade. And when it is a weapon, it should be treated like a weapon.
To repair the damage already done, we researchers, with a keen understanding of the promise and the limits of our trade, must work for a world that uses science in an ethical manner. We can look at the three pillars of nuclear nonproliferation as a model for going forward. We can achieve this only in alliance with the society at large, together amending universal human rights with the right to data ownership and the right of safe passage. If we scientists stay silent, we all risk becoming digitally enslaved.