The US National Security Agency (NSA) has access to virtually all online and mobile communications, as well as most credit card transactions, conducted in or through the US.
The agency is also tapping into the most popular smartphone applications, including Angry Birds, Google Maps, and Twitter.
The analysis contained in a new report from research firm Frost & Sullivan, ‘Stratecast Confidential: The Impact of the NSA on the Big Data Market – and Global Communications’. So pervasive and so intrusive have the US Government’s powers become that they are changing the nature of the data analytics industry.
And the NSA is not the only entity treading on personal privacy to achieve its objectives. The private sector is teeming with examples of companies obtaining personal user data through questionable means and deploying it in even more questionable ways.
The Frost & Sullivan report finds that the NSA obtains information related to 99% of telephone calls placed within or from outside the US. This is because even when calls originate with another operator, they are carried, at least in part, over equipment owned by the US-based carriers whose data the NSA obtains.
The research has particular relevance to Australia, where the Government is planning a comprehensive and controversial data retention regimen. The excuse is that it a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism – exactly the same argument used to justify the powers given to the NSA.
The revelation from whistleblower Ed Snowden have revealed the extent of the NSA’s powers, and the ways they have been abused, such as spying on employee’s girlfriends. The NSA has admitted to these practices, but dismisses them as so rare as to be trivial.
The Australian Government is part of the ‘Five Eyes’ data and intelligence sharing group of Anglosphere nations (along with the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand). Any data the Australian Government gathers on its citizens will go into the melting pot.
Frost & Sullivan’s research goes on to analyse the issues and impacts resulting from the actions of the NSA, as well as commercial and research entities, both on the populace at large and particularly on the big data market. The research is available here (registration required, so Frost & Sullivan knows who you are).
"Since electronic communications are the lifeblood of commercial activities, the fact that the NSA is collecting data from companies in the private sector may begin to have a chilling effect on the US economy," says the report's author, Jeff Cotrupe.
"Also, by figuratively placing all relevant communications in the US on a dashboard for at-a-glance monitoring, the NSA is creating a scenario where an outside entity that gained control of NSA systems could conceivably and swiftly do a great deal of damage."
That damage is already being felt – the German Government recently dropped Verizon as a web services provider because it is a US company and the content it carries is accessible by the NSA.
But the research finds that all is not lost. Pending legislation and research advances from several places, including Harvard's Center for Research on Computation and Society, provide definitional, political, and ethical answers for a growing controversy that is no longer just technological.
"Initiatives in the private sector and academia may preserve personal privacy," says Cotrupe. "If successful, this could persuade data hunter-gatherers across law enforcement, public policy, and private commerce to use applied technology to support things like a healthier population--while ensuring things like the US Constitution are still breathing, too."
That may be a forlorn hope.