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Big Brother and BI: What We Can Learn from the NSA Scandal

The NSA scandal teaches us that there are limits we must put on gathering and analyzing data.

By David S. Linthicum

People have become suspicious of technology and its ability to learn much more about us without much effort. Talk about "data mining" to people at the corner bar these days and they will tell you about corporations and the government having the ability to determine facts about us that our families may not even know.

The rise of big data has some core benefits to the world of business intelligence. We now can look at specific data in the context of massive amounts of data. For example, my health profile could be analyzed with the health histories, diagnoses, and clinical outcomes of millions of people from 50 years back until now.

Mining this data could reveal the probabilities that I will live a certain number of years and die from a particular disease, something insurance companies would love to know before writing policies. Perhaps my government would like to know this information as well, considering that is the only time I'll stop paying taxes. Data is all-powerful and all-knowing.

Of course, we've yet to encounter many instances of "data mining" taking the path to "Big Brother." We may have dismissed as paranoia examples of governments or corporations overstepping their bounds by looking at personal data we're spinning off on a daily basis, but recent events may have us reconsidering that assessment.

For example, there was hugely negative reaction when many drivers realized that their navigation devices don't just help them find the best route home. It can also be used to gather their locations as they move from place to place. TomTom, a Dutch manufacturer of GPS navigation equipment, had sold its data to the Dutch government. Oops.

The data was leveraged by the police, which used the information to set up speed traps in places where they were most likely to generate revenue. In other words, they targeted places where an especially large number of TomTom users were speeding, as determined by the TomTom-gathered data. TomTom owners were not pleased.

Then there is the recent NSA scandal. Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald reports that the NSA received a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that allows it to collect data about phone calls made by "millions of customers" on Verizon's network. This data included location data, time, and other identifying informataion about the calls. The only data not gathered was actual content of the calls themselves (note: the Guardian has an interesting background piece about what kind of metadata is available with such an order).

As Greenwald discovered, "The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April. The order ... requires Verizon on an 'ongoing, daily basis' to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries."

The fun continues.

An attempt by established credit reviewers, using a pilot project on social scoring by the Hasso Plattner Institute, was quickly shut down by a huge public outcry. The firm sought to analyze data from Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks and examine its role in determining creditworthiness.

For example, if you're posting pictures of yourself at the Craps table in Vegas, that may not increase your credit score, nor will checking in at the corner title loan shack. Just the announcement of the new project triggered angry protests, and the effort was shut down fast.

The NSA culling through our phone and social networking data, no matter what the noble purpose, is something that annoys many Americans. However, 10 years ago, directly after 911, the thinking about privacy was a bit different, and that was the environment that created the Patriot Act.

Indeed, most of us, when surveyed, have already figured out that "Big Brother" is already watching, and that the NSA issues are not as big of a deal as many in the press and pundits are making it out to be. The irony is that most of us who are data scientists and business intelligence experts, who understand and perhaps even enabled this technology, are the biggest privacy advocates and most outraged by the NSA scandal. I guess it's a case of We built the weapons, now we don't like the war. I'm still trying to figure out this new world. The use of data mining and big data systems can have a profound affect on our quality of life as well as greatly enhance our ability to drive businesses to success. The ability to make decisions around near perfect information has long been the objective, and the technology allowing us to do that is now emerging.

However, what the NSA scandal teaches us is that there are limits we must put on the gathering and analysis of data. I hate to say it, but perhaps better-understood laws and regulations that allow reasonable access to information should be legislated without too many opportunities for abuse.

David S. Linthicum is a big data and cloud computing expert and consultant. He is the author or co-author of 13 books on computing, including Enterprise Application Integration (Addison Wesley). You can contact the author at

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