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|Wednesday, June 19, 2013|
BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR
I asked Thomas Thurston, the data scientist featured in our May issue, to comment on the uproar surrounding PRISM, the code name for the NSA's massive data-collection program, recently exposed in documents leaked by federal contractor Edward Snowden.
Here are my questions, followed by Thurston's email response.
OB: You use big data to benefit business. But how would you articulate the relationship between Big Data and political surveillance? Are the two natural bedfellows? there any lesson or insight to be gleaned about Big Data in the aftermath of the Snowden episode?
Thurston: Scientific discovery is like 'the force' in Star Wars – it can be used for good or bad. On its own, data science and 'big data' are neutral. They allow humanity to do things it couldn't before. This is great when it comes to curing disease and stopping crime, but it can also raise difficult social issues as we're seeing now.
The prime example is when Target used big data to determine a teenage girl was probably pregnant. They started sending her coupons and ads for babies, causing her father to storm into a Target store and give a wicked scolding to the manager on duty. A little while later the father went back to Target and apologized after going home to learn his daughter actually was pregnant and hadn't told him yet. Big data knew his daughter was pregnant before he did! That's a great example of how big data is powerful, but can also be a little creepy.
Linda Baker keeps tabs on CEO and public policy issues.
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