NSA surveillance revelations could lead to data collection policy

This Searchlight looks at how NSA surveillance could lead to data collection policy. Plus: Netflix to the rescue, bad news for BlackBerry and more.

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The watchers in Washington are watching our data again (still). Only this time, the surveillance is being well advertised. On Thursday afternoon, the White House published a blog post to announce the start of a working group tasked with reviewing how data collection and analysis by public and private entities affect people's privacy -- more fallout from those pesky revelations about NSA surveillance. (The fox guarding the hen house, you say? Let's not be too cynical out of the gate.)

Karen GoulartKaren Goulart

As MIT Technology Review writer Tom Simonite explained in this week's lead Searchlight item, the White House's goal is to identify areas in which policy might be required to "restrain the technology and business of big data." Sounds like a useful undertaking -- if done well. Imposing policy on the collection and uses of big data is a very big task.

Last week, when President Obama announced a potential spate of reforms related to NSA surveillance, he threw in a few words -- in case we didn't know -- about how consumer data is collected all the time. It wasn't quite acknowledged that people willingly (for the most part) give personal information to corporations, whereas the government taketh anyway. That said, we American consumers are not known as readers of fine print, and the White House is probably correct in assuming many of us aren't aware of what could happen to that information once it is given. Getting a grasp on that and making it clear for folks would arguably be a public service, which in turn could be good for the government's record on big data collection.

Perhaps this task force, headed by Obama adviser John Podesta, will also be useful in weeding out more nefarious data collection tactics. Maybe it will inform, in some way, how the government itself ought to handle its immense store of information on its citizens and others.

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What one hopes it won't do is impede innovation. Sure, the data collection we see every day in things like targeted coupons and targeted advertisements can have a rather high creepiness quotient. But there's much good that big data collection can do. Examples abound -- from analyzing Tweets to understand smoking habits to collecting meter data to optimize the grid to improving automation. That's as long as the analytics end of the equations are sound.

The bottom line is really the same as it's ever been. Companies -- CIOs in particular as the tech gatekeepers -- need to be mindful of the data they're collecting, what it's being used for and how it's being stored. Collection for the sake of collection is a burden, not a benefit, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

And as long as you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from big data policy guidelines. Right?

  • Well how about that? All that NSA surveillance has led to a government task force looking at our data privacy.
  • Gosh, Netflix, your potential to save the Internet for us all makes me feel kinda bad for still having your DVD copy of Paul Blart: Mall Cop under the coffee table. Totally dropping that in the mail tomorrow.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just ask poor BlackBerry.
  • IBM's server sale to Lenovo could be good for both businesses and consumers, but very bad for HP. If you need HP, it will be down at the bar with BlackBerry.
  • Google Glass wearers just love to be asked about their high-tech specs. But even the biggest nerd would likely find a four-hour inquisition a little much.
  • If your business is still on Windows XP, you're not alone -- and that's really not a good thing in this case.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

This was first published in January 2014

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