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The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

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Mr. Snowden's disclosures revealed that PRISM, the program the NSA devised, secretly monitors calls, Web searches, and e-mails, in the United States and other countries.

The dark side of Big Data involves much more than Snowden's disclosure, or what the US does. And what made Big Data possible did not happen overnight. The term has been around for at least 15 years, though it's only recently become popular.

"It will be quite transformational," says Thomas Davenport, an information technology expert at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who co-wrote the widely used book "Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning."

What exactly will it transform? To find out, let's go back to the beginning.

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Big Data starts with ... a lot of data. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has said that we now uncover as much data in 48 hours – 1.8 zettabytes (that's 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) – as humans gathered from "the dawn of civilization to the year 2003."

You read that right. The head of a company receiving 50 billion search requests a day believes people now gather in a few days more data than humans have done throughout almost all of history.

Mr. Schmidt's claim has doubters. But similar assertions crop up from people not prone to exaggeration, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Andrew McAfee and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of the new book "Race Against the Machine."

"More data crosses the Internet every second," they write, "than were stored in the entire Internet 20 years ago."

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