Late last month the Obama administration launched the Big Data Research and Development Initiative, a program whereby six federal departments and agencies are collectively committing $200 million to administer programs that help corral and analyze boatloads of data being collected every day.
The initiative has a mission of enormous scope: Take the massive amounts of data incoming from satellites, Internet searches, cellphone calls, surveillance cameras, and myriad other sources, and then somehow make sense of it. The purpose is unclear, but the results of these analyses are purported to be of the utmost utility for such areas as education, security, health and welfare, and other fields of benefit to mankind. Although it may sound like a new idea, it actually seems to be an extension of a program first floated by President George W. Bush in 2003. Back then it was called Total Information Awareness, and its main objective was to target terrorist activity.
Americans are sensitive about their privacy, and some parts of big data look a little scary. A recent article on Wired.com described in detail the hush-hush nature of a compound being built in Bluffdale, Utah, appropriately named the Utah Data Center. The facility is being constructed for the National Security Agency for a total of $2 billion. Its purpose is to collect and analyze mounds of communication data -- presumably for threats to national security. Some of these communications, it seems, will be personal emails and cellphone calls. The entire place will be populated with servers, and the building will be off the grid, with its own fuel tanks and generators to keep those machines humming at all times. The article estimates the annual cost of operation to be around $40 million per year -- evidence, it would seem, that the government is taking this program very seriously.
Indeed, it seems no secret that the Department of Defense is serious about using its portion of the big data funds to sniff out what it considers threatening bits of communication, and it wants to be able to use information gleaned from big data to detect cyber espionage. With equipment purchased from private enterprise, the government also plans to do some code-cracking, as well.
The program is upfront about its desire to partner with universities and industry, both to assist with the collection and mining of the available information and to make use of whatever useful bits of knowledge may evolve. Several titans of industry are quite involved in big data already and are sure to be tapped by the government.
Another safe bet is data-storage leader EMC
Lastly, I think Amazon
Big data means big money, and it will be growing by leaps and bounds, regardless of privacy concerns. I expect that most of the information gleaned will be used for profit, but there's a good chance that some of it will be utilized to improve educational and medical services. No matter how you feel about the big data initiative, it's a good idea to keep an eye on it -- and to know who the players are.
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Fool contributor Amanda Alix owns no shares in the companies mentioned above.
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