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What we do, what they know

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

(Read caption) Commuters (and data sources) moved through lower Manhattan last spring.

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The footprints and arrowheads left by Stone Age ancestors are data from which archaeologists piece together the prehistoric world. That was little data. Digital Age humans generate big data. 

IBM estimates that 90 percent of the data in the world has been created in the past two years alone. The data flows from tweets, GPS signals, online searches, security cameras, and on and on. When all that data is vacuumed up and analyzed, it can produce insights into everything from retail marketing to crime fighting, electricity management to public health. In a Monitor cover story, Robert Lehrman delves into the benefits and costs of Big Data.

Along with the efficiencies and clever new applications that Big Data has yielded come big concerns about privacy. As science historian George Dyson noted in a recent article published in Edge.org, “If Google has taught us anything, it is that if you simply capture enough links, over time, you can establish meaning, follow ideas, and reconstruct someone’s thoughts. It is only a short step from suggesting what a target may be thinking now, to suggesting what that target may be thinking next.”

Even if you scrub all the cookies from your browser, ditch your cellphone, steer clear of social media, microwave your modem, and relocate to Walden Pond – just by being an earthling you’ll still leave a data trail. You’ll need to shop for food – or at least for seed to grow your own. Security cameras will see you, and the cash register will record your purchase. Selling any of that produce to buy shoes? Unless you’re a scofflaw, you have to pay taxes (more data). And you’re not going to stop phoning Mom and Dad, are you? Even a pay phone generates a call record.

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