Will the latest NSA surveillance scandal be a wake-up call about the power of data?

Big Brother is watching you

Remember when the New York Times tried to make that whole, your-cell-phone-is-a-tracking-device idea happen? Well, it seemed that most of the population didn’t care. But perhaps the news that the National Security Administration has been collecting phone metadata on millions of Verizon’s customers inside the U.S. might help people get hip to the powers of cell phone data and the power of government surveillance in a connected age.

The Guardian published a scoop and corresponding documents that appear to prove the NSA has asked Verizon to turn over a wide variety of customer data on U.S. citizens inside the country. Data collected by the carriers includes the numbers that a particular telephone number calls, the duration of calls, possibly the phone’s location and other data deemed “transactional.” It doesn’t include a subscriber’s name.

Verizon declined to comment, but since such orders are secret, that’s not a surprise. I expect that the other major wireless providers that I’ve emailed to ask if they have received similar requests will also tell me they can’t comment. But the NSA asking Verizon to turn over data on all of its customers for a three-month period in this particular Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court document obtained by The Guardian is likely not the only such ask the NSA has made.

There are so many questions and angles to this story, but from my perspective the most pressing issue is that as citizens we need to understand that times have changed. Many don’t recognize that our digital data –from cell phones, connected devices and our social media profiles — combined with powerful computing and analytics can create detailed histories of our lives, our habits and our actions.

We can paint this as some kind of paranoia. But as anyone who has ever made a purchase at a physical store and then seen an ad for a similar product show up on a completely unrelated web site knows, it’s not crazy. It’s just the power of all this unknown data being shared about you. Want to understand this issue a little better? Check out the conversation with someone from a different spy agency, the CIA’s chief technology officer, Ira “Gus” Hunt.

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