Big Data Fables: The NSA and the Metadata

Loraine Lawson

Once upon a time, in a land far away, wizards discovered a new magic called Big Data.

Slide Show

Four Steps to a Big Data Strategy

They were all excited about Big Data, because it would allow them to collect all kinds of information about the people in the land.

Medical wizards thought they could use the new magic to cure cancer and other illnesses that plagued the land.


The knights thought they could use the new magic to create new ways of fighting using empty suits of armor so they wouldn’t have to be injured.

The merchants even used Big Data, as a way of learning more about their customers, such as what goods they needed and what they thought about particular types of products.

Everybody in power loved Big Data, it seemed.

Now the leaders of the land had a government agency, and like all government agencies, it went by initials instead of an actual name. It was called the NSA.

The NSA collected metadata about the phone calls of many, many people in the land. That means the NSA knew who called whom, how long they talked, and from where the calls were made.

The NSA ran fancy math formulas on all this Big Data so they could track find bad guys and save lives.

Now they did this without asking permission from the people of the land. And for a long time, it was okay because most people did not understand about Big Data or how it could be used to spy on their lives.

Then one day, a young man told everyone that the NSA was collecting other people’s data. Then the young man — who was either very, very brave or very, very silly, depending on whom you asked — ran away to another country because he was afraid the NSA would get very, very mad.

The country’s people were very surprised and became very upset to learn that the NSA had been spying on them. They began calling their leaders and complaining.

Some leaders defended the NSA. But other leaders (including some who had passed the laws saying the NSA could collect the data) became very surprised and very upset.

Then everybody in the country started to talk about what was right and what was wrong, which in the end, was a Very Good Thing.

Moral of the story: Technology makes it possible to collect and analyze Big Data sets, but that doesn’t mean people will be okay with it once they find out — even if it’s “only” metadata.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post

Jun 11, 2013 8:52 AM Richard Ordowich Richard Ordowich  says:
Government and industry need some guiding principles to govern the use of data and metadata. These guiding principles must include economic, ethical and societal considerations and boundaries where no organization should tread. At first compliance with these principles can be voluntary, but if government and industry continue to overreach, legislation should be developed. These principles should be developed before a catastrophic data abuse event occurs. Reply

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