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The Limits On Big Data


The intelligence leaks brought about the latest round of political sniping this past week. But the controversy has also united two unlikely allies. On Friday, President Obama defended his administration's policies. He said, quote, "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about."

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator of South Carolina, found himself in the unusual position of agreeing with the White House. Here he is on Fox News.


MARTIN: To try to get past all the politics, we called up a man who knows a lot about data collection. Kenneth Cukier co-authored a book called "Big Data." I asked him whether he was surprised by all these revelations.

KENNETH CUKIER: We have seen the breadcrumbs that there has been this sort of surveillance, for lack of a better term, for a very long time. There's been lots of disclosures in the public either through whistleblowers or through official channels. So the fact is we have sort of known that this was taking place. What we now have is documentary evidence to see it in the plain light of day.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of outcry over the past few days in response to the government's data mining operation, the revelation of it. But we do live in a world where our personal information is being mined by the private sector all the time, right?

CUKIER: Well, that's exactly right. We need to separate two separate things here. The first one is the FISA court, the foreign intelligence court, getting the metadata of telephone records from the claims of the National Security Agency, that they have access to the direct servers of the private sector of Google and Facebook and Apple and others. Now, those are two very separate things.

So let's look at what is happening with the NSA's claims that they have this access. Well, they presumably would be doing just what Facebook already does - people that you know that you might know - that Apple already does, aggregates the information and mashes it up to do new things. So, in some ways, they're just simply getting the same capability that the private sector has.

We may fear that we might find that having the government centralize all this information is troubling, where we're a little bit more accepting that different private sector companies will do this. But in terms of capability, we presume that that's what they have and what they're using it for to fight terrorism.

MARTIN: This is complicated. I mean if you believe that there needs to be limitations on a program like this, how much and what kind of personal information the government can collect, where do you draw the line? How can you balance that with national security concerns and make the right call?

CUKIER: You know, it's a great question and it's a hard question. We need to have an open debate about it. What we cannot have is one side of the debate, say, the people in official positions, simply saying: Turn your heads, close your eyes and let us make decisions for you. At the same time, we cannot have another side, the critics, simply say, you don't need this, this is bad.

The fact is the data exists so there's going to be a great temptation to use it. The data is useful and valuable, and we all want people in positions of power to protect us from a hostile world. So the question now should turn to a hard-nosed, reasonable public debate - as much as we can make it public - on how do we create the proper safeguards? Because the data is there, it's going to be used and it could easily be abused. But we need to use it, too.

MARTIN: Kenneth Cukier, he is the co-author of the book "Big Data." He joined us here in our studios in Washington.

Ken, thanks so much.

CUKIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.