Boston, Privacy, and Big Data

Boston, Privacy, and Big Data
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The events last week were nothing short of horrible, although Bostonians and Americans together rejoiced on Friday as the second bombing suspect was captured. I for one shed a tear Friday night while watching citizens cheering police officers and government officials. You just don't see that every day.

Without question, the Brothers Tsarnaeva would not have been identified and apprehended so quickly-if at all-were it not for the scores of videos and pictures people willingly provided to authorities. You'll get no argument from me that we should have used every means at our disposal to apprehend these dangerous individuals.

Catching the bad guys is great, but in an ideal world federal, state, and local governments would always prevent attacks like these from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, that's just not a likely scenario, although Big Data and powerful analytic tools should help us reduce the likelihood of (successful) future terrorist attacks.

In Too Big to Ignore, I address the far-reaching privacy and security implications of Big Data. Yes, good old-fashioned police work still matters, as events of last week proved. At the same time, though, government agencies and officials have at their disposal much better technologies and tools than even ten years ago. They could not realistically mine billions of call records, search emails, penetrate networks with geolocation data, etc. Today, these limitations cease to exist. Authorities can effectively use the data generated by suspected and real terrorists and criminals as a weapon. And here's where privacy implications start to matter.

The sticky ethical conundrum involves drawing the line. Should Internet service providers, cell phone carriers, and email services give government agencies user data? Should Amazon let the FBI and CIA in on who is buying what books? Should Google flag certain videos and report stats (along with individually identifiable information) to authorities?

I don't have the answers to these questions. According to one school of thought, no one has a right to know which videos people have watched, emails we've sent, and calls we've made. On the other end of the spectrum, if the government can use this information to prevent another Boston-like tragedy and you have nothing to hide, then isn't a little sacrifice of personal privacy in order?

In an era of Big Data, events like the Boston Marathon bombings make answering this question more important than ever.

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