June 8, 2013

Data versus Information versus Wisdom

Setting aside the privacy issue for a moment, the United States government has served itself a wealth of your personal data. But that doesn't mean it has intelligence on you.  Intelligence requires that it do something with that data to have insights.
WASHINGTON—The National Security Agency's monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency's activities.

The disclosure this week of an order by a secret U.S. court for Verizon Communications Inc.'s VZ +0.54% phone records set off the latest public discussion of the program. But people familiar with the NSA's operations said the initiative also encompasses phone-call data from AT&T Inc. T -1.01% and Sprint Nextel Corp., S -1.36% records from Internet-service providers and purchase information from credit-card providers.

The Obama administration says its review of complete phone records of U.S. citizens is a "necessary tool" in protecting the nation from terror threats. Is this the accepted new normal, or has the Obama administration pushed the bounds of civil liberties? Cato Institute Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper weighs in. Photo: Getty Images.

The agency is using its secret access to the communications of millions of Americans to target possible terrorists, said people familiar with the effort.

The NSA's efforts have become institutionalized—yet not so well known to the public—under laws passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Most members of Congress defended them Thursday as a way to root out terrorism, but civil-liberties groups decried the program.
There's a lot of data being collected.  But data is a long way from insight and knowledge, let alone wisdom.  Those of us in the data and analytics field understand the difference.  Just because the government has collected a large amount of data - big data - doesn't mean it has the ability to convert that data into information, let alone knowledge or wisdom.  If it did, the Boston Marathon bombings might have been prevented.  There is a hierarchy of transforming data into understanding, as can be seen in this graph.

The BAD news: The federal government is indeed sitting on a trove of data, and it is ill-gotten data.  The GOOD news:  Given the government's track record for bungling, it is doubtful they will ever be able develop wisdom about you. The EXTRA BAD news: They will still try, and they will still probably fail to prevent further terrorism on U.S. soil, or overseas.  The WORST news: No matter what, many on the left as well as the right, will feel that the government is justified in its snooping efforts. And the government will continue to feel empowered to do more of this sort of thing.
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