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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With every phone call they make and every Web excursion they take, people are leaving a digital trail of revealing data that can be tracked by profit-seeking companies and terrorist-hunting government officials.

The revelations that the National Security Agency is perusing millions of U.S. customer phone records at Verizon Communications and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.

Verizon is handing over so-called metadata, excerpts from millions of U.S. customer records, to the NSA under an order issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian. The report was confirmed Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Former NSA employee William Binney told The Associated Press that he estimates the agency collects records on 3 billion phone calls each day.

The NSA and FBI appear to be looking even wider under a clandestine program code-named "PRISM" that was revealed in a story posted late Thursday by The Washington Post. PRISM gives the U.S. government access to email, documents, audio, video, photographs and other data belonging to foreigners on foreign soil who are under investigation, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper said it reviewed a confidential roster of companies and services participating in PRISM. The companies included AOL Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Skype, YouTube and Paltalk.

In statements, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they only provide the government with user data required under the law. (Google runs YouTube and Microsoft owns Skype.) AOL and Paltalk didn't immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

The NSA isn't getting customer names or the content of phone conversations under the Verizon court order, but that doesn't mean the information can't be tied to other data coming in through the PRISM program to look into people's lives, according to experts.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the bits and bytes left behind from people's electronic interactions can be cobbled together to draw conclusions about their habits, friendships and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers.

It's all part of a phenomenon known as "Big Data," a catchphrase increasingly used to describe the science of analyzing the vast amount of information collected through mobile devices, Web browsers and check-out stands. Analysts use powerful computers to detect trends and create digital dossiers about people.

The Obama administration and lawmakers privy to the NSA's surveillance aren't saying anything about the collection of the Verizon customers' records beyond that it's in the interest of national security. The sweeping court order covers the Verizon records of every mobile and landline phone call from April 25 through July 19, according to The Guardian.

It's likely the Verizon phone records are being matched with an even broader set of data, said Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo.

"My sense is they are looking for network patterns," she said. "They are looking for who is connected to whom and whether they can put any timelines together. They are also probably trying to identify locations where people are calling from."

Under the court order, the Verizon records include the duration of every call but not the locations of mobile calls.

The location information is particularly valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations like the one the NSA is running, said Cindy Cohn, a legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that has been fighting the government's collection of personal phone records since 2006. The foundation is currently suing over the government's collection of U.S. citizens' communications in a case that dates back to the administration of President George W. Bush.

"It's incredibly invasive," Cohn said. "This is a consequence of the fact that we have so many third parties that have accumulated significant information about our everyday lives."

It's such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark., company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.

The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet —and sleek smartphones— have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.

"I don't think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all," said Gartner analyst Douglas Laney.

In a sign of the NSA's determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The $2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security. The Washington Post's disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that U.S. government's Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell's "1984" novel.

"The fact that the government can tell all the phone carriers and Internet service providers to hand over all this data sort of gives them carte blanche to build profiles of people they are targeting in a very different way than any company can," Khatibloo said.

In most instances, Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on "like" buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what their users like and divine where they are. It's all in aid of showing users ads about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.

Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.

Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer's preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.

The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world's biggest data bank, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection director.

Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because he or she bought products linked to increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.

"We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm," Vladeck said.

Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about people. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Ronald Vinson.

The NSA "differs from a commercial enterprise in the sense that there are checks in the judicial system and in Congress," Vladeck said. "If you believe in the way our government is supposed to work, then you should have some faith that those checks are meaningful. If you are skeptical about government, then you probably don't think that kind of oversight means anything."

Photo Credit: Colin Zelinski | Daily Texan Staff

Google Inc. is facing controversy and criticism after the company announced plans to consolidate privacy policies for its 60 products, services and websites into one set of rules next month. The new policy would enable Google to treat users as a single entity across all of the company’s products, meaning that a user signed into their Gmail account would be storing data on themselves every time they use Google’s web search, YouTube or any other Google service. This data would then return back to the user in the form of personalized ads designed for the individual while they browse Google’s services.

Critics of the change on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to raise alarm about the change, including a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators and representatives who sent an open letter to Google last week to clarify the exact workings of the policy. Google was also persuaded to delay the implementation of the new rules until March 1 after European Union data protection authorities asked the company to wait while they evaluated whether the new policy infringes on the rights of EU member states.

“Internet privacy advocates are concerned about how much information one company is going to know about you,” said David Jacobs, consumer protection fellow for the Washington D.C. based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Once you start combining a lot of non-sensitive information about users in random searches, you start to develop a really accurate picture of a user, making that user a very tempting target for advertisers who are able to access that information.”

Jacobs said the major problem with the current policy is that the few ways users could opt out of data collection and solutions, like using the services without an account, are insubstantial when products like Gmail require the user to log in.

No transaction on the Internet can be completely private and privacy advocates must acknowledge that the Internet involves a two-way exchange, said advertising professor Neal Burns.

“The privacy issue becomes distressing to those who think their information should not be traded,” Burns said. “If you’re willing to pay for it, you‘re able to maintain a certain amount of privacy on the Internet. But by using a search engine like Google, we acknowledge that we are selling our privacy in exchange for free services.”

The exchange is also altering the relationship between advertiser and consumer, Burns said, which cuts out the middleman in newspapers and television advertising.

Services like Google will be largely the sole collectors of vast amounts information and even certain advertisers are wary of the company’s power, said Tess Levitan, president of the Texas Advertising Group.

“The combined information has certainly increased offerings to advertisers, but there’s also a concern that no one else can compete on that same level,” Levitan said. “Eventually advertisers will have to pay more to work within Google.”

Levitan said Google’s influence is easily seen in advertising classrooms at UT, where online mediums are becoming increasingly important and professors rely on predominately Google-created products for instruction.

Colin Gilligin, account planning director for Austin marketing firm Tocquigny, said the policy change is only a ‘coming out’ for Google. He said these policies have already been in place and the media has overexaggerated the policy shift.

“This is the poster child that gets a lot of darts thrown at it for privacy infringement, and concerns over censorship and privacy have been fresh since SOPA and PIPA came up,” Gilligin said. “Because Internet users are now more informed, users feel powerful enough to demand how their information is shared, and this could lead to competition with Google sometime in the future when a competitor offers more controlled service. It’s not likely any time soon, but now that this sort of discussion is happening it could shift the field quite a bit.”

Printed on, February 7, 2012 as:Users dismayed over consolidation

The University will now offer the UT Mail service to its more than 450,000 alumni free of charge, President William Powers Jr. announced on Wednesday.

The University launched UT Mail, powered by Google Inc., last Spring as a life-long email replacement for UT Webmail and the new service has more than 35,000 current student users. Powers said some of the benefits to UT Mail include showing off UT pride, more storage space and better privacy for users.

John Lovelace, Management Coordinator for Information Technology Services, said UT Mail was mainly intended to be a service for current students, but there were always plans to make it available for alumni.

“The opportunity existed to provide the service and it was extended,” Lovelace said. “In my opinion, the biggest benefit is that it’s a UT branded account and it’s a very desirable email address.”

Lovelace said that in the past UT students would lose their UT email address a couple of months after they graduated. He said about 15,000 alumni have now signed up for a UT Mail account. Alumni can sign up for an email account by using their old UT EID or the email on file with the University. If alumni don’t remember their UT EID or are not registered, they go through a simple verification process before they can sign up for an alumni account.

Advertising professor John Murphy said the UT brand is hugely powerful, especially in athletics and the sale of UT-branded merchandise, partly because of the huge alumni base prominent both in the state and nationwide.

“The biggest benefit I see for UT is connecting with alumni and generating goodwill among this important public,” Murphy said. “This connection could potentially pay off in gifts in the future, active support for issues that UT considers to be important and in many other ways that are not obvious now.”

Google, Inc. spokesman Tim Drinan said the company is thrilled UT has taken advantage of Google Apps for Education, a free package of email and collaborative applications designed specifically for educational institutions that offers free accounts to students and alumni. Customers that choose to switch to UT Mail have 25 gigabytes of storage, can opt to turn off advertisements and have the Google guarantee the site will be available 99.9 percent of the time.

More than 15 million students, faculty and staff use Google Apps worldwide, including Brown University, Northwestern University, Harvard University, Yale University and Vanderbilt University.

“Google Apps was designed to help people work together more effectively,“ Drinan said. “We believe that university communities can benefit from tools that help connect the right people, ideas, and information in more natural ways.”

Bill McCausland, chief operating officer for Texas Exes, said the organization was thrilled to be working with UT to make alumni more aware about UT Mail. McCausland said before UT Mail, Texas Exes offered a forwarding service with an address because of high demand.

McCausland said he and his daughter have signed up for a UT Mail account.

“I think it’s a great move starting with the students,” McCausland said. “They will have an address they can take with them. This was driven by the need for students and we’re really pleased this can be made available to alumni.”

Published on Friday, November 4, 2011 as: University, Google offer email services to all alumni