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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 their users like and divine where they are. It’s all in aid of showing users ads 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.
NSA’s Utah operations
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 that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The massive center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security.
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. Amazon.com Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.
The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world’s biggest data bank about U.S. citizens through its collection of Social Security numbers, tax returns and health records through Medicare, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection director.
Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because he or she bought products linked to increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.
"We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm," Vladeck said.
Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about people. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Roger Vinson.
The NSA "differs from a commercial enterprise in the sense that there are checks in the judicial system and in Congress," Vladeck said. "If you believe in the way our government is supposed to work, then you should have some faith that those checks are meaningful. If you are skeptical about government, then you probably don’t think that kind of oversight means anything."
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