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Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and NSA

Privacy Advocates Set Their Sights on the Wrong G-Men

In an op-ed in last Friday’s Washington Post, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, bemoaned the data-driven economy, equating the data scientists in Silicon Valley with the spooks at Fort Meade.

Unfortunately, she is not the first to do so. Since the exposure of the government’s PRISM program, veteran privacy activists have been conflating the intelligence community’s questionable, closed-door electronic surveillance program with the voluntary, open, and legitimate collection of personal data by the private sector. Chris Hoofnagle at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology states, “What’s happening now is the logical outcome of a leave-it-to-the-market public policy agenda, which left the private sector’s hands unbound to collect data for the government.” And John Podesta at the Center for American Progress argues that after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government “should not only examine NSA surveillance activities and the laws governing them, but also private-sector activities and telecommunications technology more generally.” Some critics have even gone so far as to blame innovation and technology. Writing in Salon, Andrew Leonard placed the blame directly on the technology: “By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of

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Data Science Is Not PRISM: In Defense of Analytics

In the wake of the leaks that revealed the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) PRISM surveillance program, several recent articles have responded with criticism of “big data.” “The advantages of big data could prove to be ephemeral,” author Andre Mouton writes in USA Today, but “the costs…will probably be sticking around.” And Andrew Leonard at Salon directly blames the technology, writing, “By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of data that increasingly define our online existence, [distributed processing platform] Hadoop effectively enabled the surveillance state.”

Pictured: Michael Flowers, civic data icon and Analytics Director of the City of New York’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. Photo: DataGotham

But criticizing “big data” itself is a curious thing. In its original form, “big data” was just a catchall term for those technologies—borrowed mostly from statistics and computer science—which still worked on data analysis problems that would overload a typical processor. The connotation of “big” as in “big tobacco” was added retroactively. Many practitioners prefer the broader term “data science” for this very reason: they aren’t members of some kind of shadowy syndicate. They aren’t even in

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