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Are Google, Facebook and other big data giants controlling our lives?

This July, the 20th IDEAS Symposium at Concordia tackles digital privacy, security and ‘how we live’
June 15, 2016
By J. Latimer


Database systems expert Bipin Desai has a bone to pick with some of today’s leading multinationals.

“There are five terrible dangers in the world right now — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and its parent company, Alphabet,” says Desai, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering.

Desai is speaking about the state of data, the official topic of the public panel taking place the International Database Engineering and Applications Symposium - IDEAS '16.

IDEAS is a Concordia-founded and -sponsored forum for data science and engineering researchers, practitioners, developers and application users to explore revolutionary ideas and results, and to exchange techniques, tools and experiences.

This year, the symposium’s 20th edition will run from July 11 to 13 at Concordia, where Desai founded the conference in 1997. Since its inception, IDEAS has been hosted in many cities, including Beijing, Barcelona, Lisbon, Yokohoma, Hong Kong, New Delhi, and Banff.

Big data!

Why does Desai single out these five companies as dangers?

“Because of the enormous amount of data they have,” he says. “Their rules supersede governmental regulation. They're so powerful. They're controlling our lives, directly or indirectly. Often, people don't mind, but we have to be aware of it.”

This makes big data a hot topic right now, in the era of Edward Snowden and the Panama Papers. However, Desai cautions that its definition is contested.

“Big data can mean many different things to different people,” he says. “It's about entities collecting and correlating our data … Big data may or may not, however, be large amounts of data. It gets ‘bigger’ when data from different sources are collected for an unrelated purpose and correlated, allowing things to be discovered.”

All-star panellists

The public panel — on July 11 at 6:30 p.m. — will feature top academics in the field — including keynote speakers Jeffrey D. Ullman, Stanford W. Ascherman professor of computer science (emeritus) and M. Tamer Öszu from the University of Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science.

The other confirmed speakers are Maude Bonenfant (University of Quebec at Montreal), Drew Desai (University of Ottawa) and Benjamin C. M. Fung (McGill University).

They will address how the growth of big data and its ubiquity have confronted the database community with new challenges.

“Our panellists will be discussing security and privacy issues, big data from the semiotic perspective, philosophical anthropology — ‘how we live’ — in the age of data and the central role of computer science in academia,” says Desai, who appreciates the prestige and co-operation provided by his IDEAS co-sponsors, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and their Management of Data and Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining special interest groups.

“Jeff is widely considered the top person in the field. On the panel, we’ve combined the old fogies like us — Jeff and I — with young people like Maude at UQAM,” says Desai, with a laugh.


The International Database Engineering and Applications Symposium - IDEAS '16 takes place at Concordia from July 11 to 13. Consult the fee schedule and register today!

The IDEAS ’16 free public panel, State of Data, is on July 11 at 6:30 p.m., Room EV-1.605, Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex (1515 Ste. Catherine St. W.), Sir George Williams Campus.


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