The NSA, Big Data, and Privacy (and Captain America)

WARNING:  This article contains major spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you have not yet watched the film, I recommend that a. you do so, and b. you do not read this article yet. Thank you in advance for preventing me from ruining your movie-watching and article-reading experiences.

Captain America’s shield. Image by Bago Games.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HYDRA is back. Members of the organization that the title hero supposedly defeated in Captain America: The First Avenger during World War II have snuck their way into the higher ranks of the modern-day defense organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. The film’s plot revolves around an algorithm developed by HYDRA agent Arnim Zola, one that gathers all data about a person and then predicts whether or not he or she will be a hazard to the supposedly peaceful new world order HYDRA is setting up. Over the course of the film, the Captain is able to stop HYDRA from using that algorithm, which finds and kills approximately 20 million people deemed potential threats.

While the Captain America of the Marvel Cinematic Universe resides in is one full of superheroes, aliens, and gods, it is not all that different from our own. The mass data-collecting covert organization HYDRA parallels the National Security Agency of the United States today. While the NSA fortunately has not and will not attempt to kill 20 million Americans, it, in the name of peace, gathers all available digital data about a person to weed out potential threats, just like HYDRA does in the Captain America movie. This mass gathering  of information from people’s lives is especially prevalent at the NSA’s Utah Data Center.

Big data is seen by many technology analysts as the future of IT. It involves gathering, sorting, and analyzing massive amounts of information from people. It has been used by companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple to try to tailor better advertisements and products to consumers. After all, that is why the NSA’s PRISM program mined data from these companies. Moreover, big data has been used by politicians and political analysts alike to predict voting patterns. Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of the political blog FiveThirtyEight, used it to correctly call which candidate would win 49 out of 50 states and 50 out of 50 states in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, respectively. Big data is also being used by medical professionals to predict and preemptively respond to patients’ potential ailments.

Although it’s clear that big data has potential benefits for humankind, it is now up to the United States federal government to ensure that its negatives are minimized, especially in light of last year’s NSA scandal. As the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy ends its 90-day review of the American government’s mass data collection, it is important that a proper balance is struck between safety and privacy. To achieve this equity, proper federal oversight (especially from the Supreme Court) of big data usage by both the public and private sectors is imperative. While in the Information Age some loss of privacy is obviously inevitable, America needs to be a leader in ensuring that excessive amounts of privacy are not given up in the name of security. Otherwise, as Benjamin Franklin once noted, people will neither have nor deserve either of the two.


Gangadharan, Seeta. “Knowing Is Half the Battle: Combating Big Data’s Dark Side Through Data Literacy.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

Nichols, John. “Beyond the NSA: What About Big Data Abuse by Corporations, Politicians? | The Nation.” The Nation. The Nation, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

Taylor, Chris. “Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States.” Mashable. Mashable Inc., 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

One Comment

  1. The US Government has turned the Internet into something it was never intended to be: a system for spying on us in our most private moments. By tapping Internet cables, undermining security standards, and getting our data from companies in secret, the National Security Agency has built the largest surveillance apparatus in history and is collecting information on most Internet users.

    This is a watershed moment for our freedom to live our lives and the privacy to be who we are. With NSA surveillance programs, the US Government now has the power to arbitrarily track, target, and go after any one of us — our friends, family, the journalists and activists we depend on — because they don’t like our ideas. In a world without privacy, anything you’ve written, done, or seen can be used against you, making your life a nightmare. Spying IS censorship. Now that we know, WE decide what happens next.
    Americans Right to Privacy has solutions and I am anxious to share them with you. We offer secure, encrypted email, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which secures your computer’s internet connection and changes your IP address every 10 minutes to guarantee that all of the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes. Also a “Swiss Bank Account for your Data” Digital Safe! Switzerland, a country known for its strict data privacy laws, has no back door access to encryption for any government agency, not even Switzerland itself!

    If governments and “free” email providers can peek through your webcam, read your emails and look inside your computer, so can the criminals.

    Solutions exist.
    There is data security, and then there is Swiss data security.

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