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Does the federal government have high enough standards for data quality?

Paul Newman Archive

Consistently in recent years, and especially since last June with the emergence of Edward Snowden as a whistleblower, people have been concerned about the federal government spying on them and collecting their private information. Citizens are panicked about the National Security Agency listening in on their phone calls and keeping logs on matters that are supposed to be personal.

The truth, though, is that the NSA isn't concerned about listening in on people's conversations with their significant others or snooping into their lunch orders. In reality, the NSA is looking to collect information on clandestine activities that are relevant to matters of national security.

Therefore, it appears that people's anger over NSA spying is largely misplaced. Yes, the agency is collecting large volumes of data about people's contacts - but it's not the quantity of this information that matters. It's data quality that's a bigger concern.

According to a recent article in The Leaf Chronicle, there's an air of paranoia out there regarding NSA spying, but people could speak out far more constructively if they advocated for accurate, relevant information that helps keep American citizens safe.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post Writers Group recently noted that President Barack Obama and the NSA brass have advocated for data mining as a valuable strategy in the quest to thwart potential terrorist attacks and maintain a status quo of relative peace. In every example of thwarted attacks, analysts were able to search through data and find individuals' phone numbers after the fact.

"Why on earth does the agency need to store my phone records, and yours, when it can quickly obtain a court order instructing the phone companies to turn over information about communications involving known or suspected terrorists?" Robinson asked. "Collecting and storing unbelievable amounts of useless information is easy. Machines do all the work. Analyzing and sharing the right tidbits of pertinent information is hard, but that's the best way to prevent future attacks - and that's what Obama should tell the NSA to do."

This story underlines the fact that government agencies face essentially the same problems that private companies everywhere do. Collecting large volumes of data and collecting the right data are two different goals, and there's a difficult balancing act between the two. Just like any retailer or marketing agency, the NSA needs to make sure it's mining for only the most relevant information.