Biggest Data

Obama’s case for the benefits of Big Brother government

It was only seconds before US president Barack Obama mentioned Google when talking about how technology could transform government this morning.

And indeed, the reinvention of government as a data mine was largely Obama’s point. While he didn’t refer to the government’s collaboration with Google and other tech companies to capture vast amounts of user data via PRISM and other programs, he essentially made the same point as Poulos: Much of government is a data-collection project. Indeed, it always has been—there’s a reason the census is in the US constitution. That data can be used for bad purposes, or good, and with so much attention to the bad side of late, the White House seems to want to remind us that it uses all that data for good things, too.

Obama’s examples were wide-ranging. During disasters, emergency responders use satellite imagery to respond to the hardest-hit places, going door to door with iPads to check for survivors. The government is releasing “the people’s data” to the private sector, so that energy companies can use information on weather patters and energy usage to help customers reduce power bills, and health care companies can find ways to lower insurance costs. The government is even working to replicate the “auto-fill” feature on web-browsers to make filling in government forms easier.

The hope, just as in the private sector, is that data can be leveraged to provide better, more efficient services. But the implicit bargain is the same: If you’re giving up so much information about yourself, whether to Facebook or to the feds, the benefits—and the terms of service—had better be clear.

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