Jun 15, 2013 07:43 AM

Edward Snowden and Big Data


Former CIA employee Edward Snowden left his work with U.S. intelligence agencies to expose the secret PRISM surveillance program. According to Snowden's disclosures, the U.S. National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation use the program to access Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other major Internet companies in the collection of information on foreigners: e-mails, online chats and credit card information – nothing is off-limits.

The revelations have irrevocable, far-reaching international ramifications and the nine leading Internet companies involved have all staunchly denied knowledge of PRISM. U.S. President Barack Obama has said no one is listening to telephone calls. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said public exposure of sensitive intelligence secrets are "literally gut-wrenching," and that such action does "great damage to national security."

Despite the denials and justifications, most people have read these statements as idle talk. Even in the United States, there are those that believe in Snowden. On the White House's website, there are 74,000 signatures as of June 15 for a petition which urges Obama to pardon Snowden. To an outside observer, it's as if some Hollywood plot has come to life with this case of a government employee who, moved by moral necessity in pursuit of the public interest, punctures a dark illusion.

Snowden may have broken the law, but he is a good person. At least for now, there's no indication that his motivation was personal gain. It bears repeating Snowden could have sold his knowledge to Russia or other countries. Instead, all he did was speak the truth; and he chose to withhold information that could bring real harm such as employee lists or locations of intelligence stations. 

It is possible that Snowden isn't absolutely on the side of right. Obama said earlier this week, "It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security, 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."

Snowden's disclosures could compel the U.S. Congress to re-examine government authorization of sweeping surveillance programs which monitor all private communications. A scenario that is more likely to occur – as was voiced by Snowden himself – is that nothing will change. Now the public knows, and they know that there are no limitations to intelligence-gathering abuses.

The uncovering of PRISM also serves to highlight privacy implications surrounding the emergence of big data. Data collected from Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other Internet sites originated from users that probably did not suspect they were subjects of government surveillance. Even big data analysis for commercial purposes faces questions of user consent. In the future, we must work on creating privacy laws which offer a reasonable balance of technological benefit and confidentiality. 

Xin Haiguang is a columnist for 21st Century Business Herald and Beijing News

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