Mon, Jun 10, 2013 - Page 9 News List

US’ data mining raises ‘Big Brother’ fears

While Internet companies mostly use what they learn from users’ online activities to tailor advertising, the increasing interest of governments in collecting such data is sparking serious privacy concerns

By Michael Liedtke  /  AP, SAN FRANCISCO

Under the court order, Verizon records include the length and location of every call, according to the Guardian.

The location information is particularly valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations like the one the NSA is running, said Cindy Cohn, a legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group that has been fighting the US government’s collection of personal telephone records since 2006. The foundation is currently suing over the government’s collection of US citizens’ communications in a case that dates back to the administration of former US president George W. Bush.

“It’s incredibly invasive,” Cohn said.

“This is a consequence of the fact that we have so many third parties that have accumulated significant information about our everyday lives,” she says.

It is such a rich vein of information that US companies and other organizations now spend more than US$2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp, an Arkansas company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.

The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet — and sleek smartphones — have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.

“I don’t think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all,” Gartner analyst Douglas Laney said.


In a sign of the NSA’s determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah, that is five times larger than the US Capitol — all to sift through Big Data. The US$2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the US government are determined to build a database of all telephone calls, Internet searches and e-mails under the guise of national security.

The Post’s disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that US government’s Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 novel.

In most instances, Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on “like” buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what each of their users like and divine where they are. It is all in aid of showing users advertisements about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.

Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.

Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer’s preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its Web site.

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