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Big data: How cellphones help track diseases

The same type of data used by the NSA to track terrorists can be used by public health researchers to combat the spread of diseases. 

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Inside Facebook server's room in Prineville, Ore. The revelations that the National Security Agency is perusing millions of US customer phone records at Verizon and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.

Alan Brandt/AP

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"Big data" has become quite the buzzword this year, especially after reports surfaced that the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected and stored individuals' phone records and Internet browsing histories, opening the debate about what should (and shouldn’t) be done with all of that information. But the possibilities for these massive data sets carry far beyond the hunt for terrorists. Public health officials use the same kind of data for a similar goal: saving lives. 

Researchers can now pull together huge amounts of information – think Google Trends, Twitter messages about flu symptoms, or frequency of visits to WebMD – with the aim of tracking diseases. Officials have sought after such information for decades, but the increasing availability of big data makes the hunt faster and more accurate than ever before. 

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