Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Oprah, Data Mining and Government Snooping

The news over the last couple of weeks that the National Security Agency is routinely tracking all sorts of electronic communications as part of the “War on Terror” has gotten a lot of attention.  It has raised concerns about government as big brother, privacy, and when the government is justified in “following” people.  This is part of a big data mining effort trying to figure who potential “bad guys” are communicating with and then connect the dots associated with their networks to prevent acts of terror.   The idea is that monitoring so-called metadata can provide all sorts of information and in fact tell you a lot about a person or group of people.


Thoughts About Tracking?

Last March I asked “Who is Tracking You?” and pointed out many of the issues associated with all of the data that is floating around out there.  In light of that post, I guess I am not surprised by the fact the Federal Government is casting a wide net on communications metadata.  A so-called “total information awareness” program emerged just after 9/11 and was widely criticized.  The program was thought to have been canceled but appears to have been merely “rebranded”.  So here are a few observations related to our lives in the era of big data:

  •  Any data that can be mined will be mined.


  • All data is fundamentally mineable.  Even data that was not created digitally can be digitized and then mined.  This has happened with pre-digital books and magazines as part of text mining, and provided information about social change based on how word use changes with time.  For example the use of the word “women” has increased dramatically since the 1970s.


  • There are four fundamental kinds of snooping:
    1. The Gladys Kravitz on steroids effect or just plain snooping by someone with access to a database.  Here is a link about someone targeting women via Minnesota driver’s license data.
    2. The dog ate my homework….this happens when a lap top or thumb drive with things like medical or banking records are lost.
    3. Hacking by criminals looking to make money.
    4. Governments, businesses or even political campaigns looking to mix and match data for some reason.


  • Some data is part of crumbs or footprints we leave behind doing various transactions or just living in an electronic world.  Some is data that is intentionally gathered for example when the cashier asks for your phone number when you check out of certain stores (your phone number can be linked to all sorts of things).  Some is data that is passively collected and can be used later like video surveillance tapes.  As the Boston bombing shows getting information out of images can also be crowd sourced.  The final way personal data becomes available is via what we voluntarily disclose on social media as part of the societal phenomenon of Oprahization.


  • The final point is that who knows where the government ends and the big IT and communications companies begin.  None of this happened without the collaboration of the big companies.  How hard did they fight to not give up the data?  When electronic copies of the internal corporate memos are leaked (one of the positives of all of this) it will be interesting to wade through the doublespeak and see just how willingly the big boys collaborated with the Feds.


End of Privacy?

I guess the overwhelming conclusion is that we have entered the “end of privacy” era.  We are all addicted to the convenience and efficiency of the electronic world and I doubt that for most of us there will be any going back.  Our Oprahized world suggests that a lot of people are embracing a world with no privacy.


Leave a Reply