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Just Don’t Call it Big Data

Why Google fears the totalitarian connotations of the buzzword big data.

Spies with the U.S. National Security Agency are hoovering up huge amounts of digital data on Americans, including records of every phone call, and may have wide access to Internet traffic, too.

Bad press: A film depiction shows monitoring by the thought police from George Orwell’s 1984.

The top secret documents describing the NSA’s efforts were leaked by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor now hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong. Snowden, who took the unusual step of coming forward, claimed the NSA could see pretty much everything, simply by “abusing” the commercial structure of the Internet.

“The Internet,” said Snowden, “is a TV that watches you.” The imagery, of course, is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Snowden’s bombshell is that the government is watching, and might be doing so illegally. But here’s something we already know: Internet companies routinely “spy” on Internet surfers. They track whatever they can and sell the data to advertisers. It’s all right there in their terms of service.

Isn’t it funny how we sometimes forget?

That reminded me of a remarkable interaction MIT Technology Review had last month with Google. For our recent series on big data (see “Big Data Gets Personal”), we’d been trying to get access to write a story about Google’s internal human-resources team, which uses lots of data-crunching to make personnel decisions.

The surprise came when a Google PR person told us the company was hesitant to participate in a story tied to the term “big data.” They’d prefer, they said, not to be associated with it. Why? I asked. “It’s too Big Brother-ish,” came the answer.

Obviously, Google, the company that wants to organize the world’s information, is up to its eyeballs in big data. It invented some of the key technologies, like MapReduce, and even some of the NSA’s software are reportedly just copies of Google ideas. In 2011, Tim O’Reilly ranked Google CEO Larry Page the world’s most powerful data scientist, saying that he’d “pushed the boundaries of what is possible with big data.”

Yet digging around a little, it looks to me like Google has all but banned “big data” from its communication with consumers. So far as I can determine, neither Google’s founders, Page and Sergey Brin, nor its chairman Eric Schmidt, have ever uttered the words big data in public (please correct me in the comments section if I’m wrong). A search of Google’s press releases also turns up exactly zero occurrences of the term.

Other companies, like Intel, aren’t nearly so shy about big data. You’ll find them talking about it a lot. But Intel is selling server chips to technology companies, including Google. It’s not addressing consumers directly. Some other consumer Internet firms, like Facebook, also seem to steer away from big data, at least in their press releases.

Big data does appear in some of Google’s communications. It shows up in job ads and in notes to developers. It has to, because big data is what Google really does. Should we be troubled they don’t want the rest of us to remember that?

[Update: A sharp-eyed reader points out that Eric Schmidt makes a passing reference to “the age of big data” at 4:35 in this video from a recent invitation-only Google event.]

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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