It's such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark. company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.
The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet —and sleek smartphones— have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.
"I don't think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all," said Gartner analyst Douglas Laney.
In a sign of the NSA's determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The $2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security. The Washington Post's disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that U.S. government's Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell's "1984" novel.
"The fact that the government can tell all the phone carriers and Internet service providers to hand over all this data sort of gives them carte blanche to build profiles of people they are targeting in a very different way than any company can," Khatibloo said.
In most instances, Internet companies such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Yahoo Inc. are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on "like" buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what each of their users like and divine where they are. It's all in aid of showing users ads about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.
Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.
Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer's preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. Amazon.com Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.
The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world's biggest data bank, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection director.
Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because they bought products linked to an increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.
"We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm," Vladeck said.
Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about private citizens. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Ronald Vinson.