Practical Technology

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Big data, metadata, and traffic analysis: What the NSA is really doing


What I find most remarkable about all the hubbub about the National Security Agency’s Prism program is how little new “news” there is to Edward Snowden’s “revelations.”

After all, the NSA’s mission has been to intercept communications and break codes ever since it was founded in 1952. Combine that with the Patriot Act, and anyone who’s bothered to read the books of NSA expert James Bamford over the last few years won’t find anything in the least bit surprising about Prism.

It’s possible, of course, that the NSA is doing something technically interesting, like intercepting and breaking SSL-protected Internet communications. But the NSA doesn’t have to bother with deciphering your PGP-protected love notes to your sweetie to know what you’re up to. No, they can combine their age old techniques of working with metadata and traffic analysis with 21st century big data analysis to have a darn good idea of what you, along with everyone else, are doing.

It’s not just the NSA, though. Big Internet businesses have been using the same techniques to deliver customized Web experiences to you for almost twenty years.

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