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

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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 (s vz) 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.

9 Responses to “Will the latest NSA surveillance scandal be a wake-up call about the power of data?”

  1. wolfe23

    At least if you use Dropbox, there is a way to keep your stuff secure from ANY prying eyes via a 3rd party encryption solution called SafeMonk ( They call their solution “tapproof” since the private encryption keys needed to decrypt a file are held by the Dropbox user, not their service nor Dropbox. This means if the government wants to access their Dropbox account, they can’t see anything in the clear without sending a subpoena to the owner. Pretty cool stuff.

  2. RobPaulGru

    You are misunderstanding all of this. It is perfectly fine for a Democrat president to spy on Americans. If a Republican president spies on calls between Americans and terrorists abroad, it is EVIL. It is all about context.

    • You have it exactly right. If a Republican president were living in the White House, the liberals would be throwing themselves a nasty temper tantrum. But, since it is one of their own, little is being said.

  3. anonymous howard

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

    Evidence to date suggests people just don’t care about the big picture. They’re mired in the minutiae of tribal conflict.Bertram Gross was pretty accurate back in 1980.

  4. David Earl

    I think you miss the point. Some people may indeed think there is a case for doing this, but in a democratic society, if the state is to routinely monitor all the communications of everyone, it should be done with the informed consent of the people, not in secret without any checks and balances or scrutiny. The US is doing what totalitarian states do.

    In the UK this (and routine monitoring of email and website visit metadata) has been proposed and so far resisted democratically. But who knows how many governments are already doing this in secret. On the evidence today, I would bet the US is and that there are similar orders not just to all the phone companies but also to all ISPs, which also require them not to disclose it is being done.

      • ricdesan

        Welcome to the real 1984. Its much more covert and subtle than the George Orwell version of totalitarian. Truth is this minor revelation doesnt even qualify as the tip of the iceberg. Its just a few flakes of snow sitting on top.

    • PrincetonAl

      An excellent link. Ad a link to the current IRS revelations, and you can square the circle. Monitor everything, predict how things will evolve, shape and influence as many as you can, target the intractable.

      Closed loop marketing, government style.