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On data

Your data are not your data.
They are the digits of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

If Gibran were around today, would his magnificent poem look somewhat as above? I am not sure. But citizens of the first world, notably the Americans, are increasingly losing ownership of personal data. It worries Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, who is probing nine leading information brokers. He fears that “an unprecedented amount” of personal, medical and financial information about people could be collected, mined and sold, to the potential detriment of consumers.

“An ever-increasing percentage of their lives will be available for download, and the digital footprint they will inevitably leave behind will become more specific and potentially damaging, if used improperly,” Mr. Rockefeller, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote in letters to the data brokers. “It is critical that we understand what information companies like yours are already collecting and selling.”

The multibillion-dollar data brokerage industry has promptly trashed the Senator’s apprehension. The fact, however, remains that the Senate-probe is the second of its kind this year. New York Times reports.

But the question is: how safe the Americans’ privacy is with the government in the first place? James Bamford’s article in the Wired magazine describes the extent to which U.S. government agencies collect data on their own citizens. It’s so voluminous data that the National Security Agency now needs a new 1-million-square-foot data center. To put a perspective to it: that’s nearly as much floor space as the Empire State Building has on its 108 floors.

Bamford says the NSA is collecting, quote, “billions of e-mail messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all [that data]” in Utah.

Governmental domestic spying had been largely illegal for three decades, but after 9/11, the NSA, the FBI, and other security agencies have been given—or have simply taken—more and more latitude to assemble databases of a kind the East German Stasi or the Soviet Union’s KGB could only dream of collecting.

That cloud of tyranny casts a shadow on all of us. But it’s the rare cloud that doesn’t have a silver lining.

IEEE Spectrum Magazine reports.


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