Snowden told us things we should have already known

File photo of Germany's Chancellor Merkel using her mobile phone before a meeting at a European Union summit in Brussels

Snowden’s stories of a far-reaching NSA shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone working with Big Data. We’re entering a new age and the technology and techniques of the past won’t hold up. Just reading the headlines is all the evidence we need.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone was being monitored by the NSA. This revelation comes just after other countries discovered that their citizens’ calls were also being monitored and now we have apparently outraged governments summoning American ambassadors all over the place. But how much of this should come as a surprise to us? How many of those indignant governments were running their own surveillance activities against their own and other countries? We’ve known since July that my own country, France, was doing something very similar and it’s safe to say many other were, too.

Should it be a surprise?

Welcome to a world awash in data, whether that data comes from communications between people, movement, purchases or a host of other digitized records. In a very short span of human history, gathering, filtering, storing, analyzing and correlating information has become a relatively straight-forward task. Should it come as a surprise that governments, tasked with preventing terror attacks and other serious crimes would resort to the information readily at their disposal? Not really. Not at all, in fact. In a world where laws are only slowly catching up with Big Data’s capabilities, why wouldn’t they?

And simply shutting down the use of data won’t really work, either. Consider what happened when the U.S. ratified the 18th Amendment to their Constitution, kicking off Prohibition. In short order, the U.S. became a nation of hypocrites that undermined its own respect for the rule of law (oh, the irony), and launched the career of Al Capone and other gangsters we still talk about today.

Data is a new commodity and the more an organization, government or private, can corner the market, the more they can lock down advantages over competitors, both fair and unfair. Data is fueling the new arms race and there will need to be curbs, security, fast response to breaches and a significant amount of other governance built into our systems that carry and use it.

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