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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The New Know-It-Alls Have Changed Our Lives

Not a year goes by without some report recommending that Long Island build its future around “Tech” and software. The ongoing disclosures about our government’s surveillance methods may have dealt a body blow to that kind of future, and to large segments of the American technology sector.

Our European allies are going ape over revelations in the German and British media that our National Security Agency has been spying on European Union offices on both sides of the ocean and has been intercepting over half a billion telephone calls, emails and text messages a month in Germany alone. Among our closest allies, only Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand have been exempted from these spy attacks.

European diplomats and trade leaders have condemned these practices in language so strong it is reminiscent of what we used to say about the Soviet Union. Words like “Stasi” and “KGB” are found in many international news reports. These words are taken seriously in Europe, where millions have vivid memories of what it was all like. By the time you read this, it is very possible that upcoming discussions on a new trans-Atlantic free trade agreement, something our government and corporate community seem to want very much, will be cancelled.

It turns out that these prissy Europeans are seeing NSA surveillance less as “fighting terrorism” and more as corporate espionage, manic control and bullying.

Our daily lives are already being changed by an explosion in massive data mining, the ability of all kinds of businesses, governments and political campaigns to sift through huge amounts of data and identify “bread crumbs” to form profiles and make predictions about what you might do. Especially since the 2012 Presidential campaign and its implementation by Obama For America, “Big Data” is the hottest phrase in professional political circles and among state and local government “IT” (information technology) decision-makers. Everyone wants it, and now everyone can have it. The NSA gave it to them.

Building a complex, expensive Big Data system used to be the provenance of mega-corporations. In 2011, the NSA turned its Accumulo data-mining software code over to the Apache Software Foundation, the not-for-profit coalition that serves as an incubator and clearinghouse for free, “open source” software. They released Apache Accumulo in March 2012. Now Big Data is for everyone, and it’s all based on a single software standard. Compatible. Interchangeable. It’s brilliant, really.

Apache is generally seen as one of the Good Guys of the software industry, and Big Data can have incredibly useful application to government. Check out New York City’s “Checkbook NYC 2.0” site, which presents detailed information on revenues, spending, contracts and payroll. The city posted the source code so civic groups, newspapers and other cities can apply it and build on it themselves. IBM is pushing its Big Data analytics package to local governments to help reduce overpayments and recover funds.

Big data is being widely used to target personalized online advertising. Banks are using neighborhood demographics and social media connections to predict credit worthiness. Health insurers are using purchase history to predict future health problems. Last year, there was controversy over reports that a major retailer could tell a woman was pregnant based on her purchases and demographic history.

And now, in their eagerness to “keep us safe,” our leaders have probably crippled sales of American software and online services to corporations and governments in other countries, a huge revenue source. The NSA and FBI have direct access, voluntarily or not, to the online servers of famous software giants, social networking sites and international online retailers.

So much technology now talks to the online “cloud.” To millions of consumers and businesses, American-powered clouds seem vulnerable.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net