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Really Big Data and the Pursuit of Privacy June 7, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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There’s been so much excitement these days about the commercial potential of Big Data that we’ve forgotten that the Federal government is in the best position to obtain and analyze many terabytes of data.  We were reminded of that in a big way following revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) was obtaining under secret court order information about all phone calls made by Verizon customers.  I am not a Verizon customer, but I have no doubt that the same court orders exist for other carriers.

(Interesting side note:  Many years ago, after I earned my MS in Math, I had a job offer to join the NSA as a civilian cryptologist.  Perhaps now I wish I had taken it.)

With virtually unlimited fast computing power, the NSA can identify patterns that provide a basis for follow-up law enforcement activities.

Here’s a simple example of how it works.  A computer program identifies twenty or so different phone numbers in the New York City area that have called the same number in, oh, the Kingdom of Jordan about two hundred times in the last two months.  The number in Jordan is a suspected front (through other sources) for some sort of terrorist activity.  This connection might provide law enforcement reason to look more closely into the activities of those making these calls.  That’s not inherently a bad thing.

Of course, there are ways that terrorists and criminals can combat this, such as the use of prepaid and disposable cell phones bought with cash, calling cards, and even random pay phones.  At best, analyzing call records represents one tool among many in the pursuit of wrongdoing, and not really a “Big Brother is Watching” scenario.

From a privacy standpoint, I’m mostly sanguine about the NSA collecting and analyzing calling data.  I’m not engaged in terrorist or criminal activities, and my phone calls are just a few data points among the billions out there.  I’m not directly threatened, or even inconvenienced.

But . . . there may be a slippery slope here.  The definition of suspicious calling activity may gradually expand to include things that aren’t illegal, but perhaps just unethical or embarrassing.  Once you have the data and the computing power, you can start looking for other things.  Call it scope creep, an all-too-common affliction of many projects.

And in a larger sense, many of our freedoms are actually constructed on the premise that the Federal government cannot connect the dots between the myriad of records held by the many Federal agencies on each of us.  Call it privacy by disorganization, but it has worked at least throughout my lifetime to protect my liberties.  But thanks to the advancements made in Big Data over the last several years, we may be seeing the end of that type of protection.

Security and privacy represent direct tradeoffs.  Unlike many Americans, I would prefer to be a little less secure and a little more private.  But the majority does rule, and I do believe that the majority has little issue with the current state of affairs.

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