There's a lot of talk these days about how governments use all the data they can put their hands on, to monitor every individual in the world. Capabilities offered by big data storage and analytic processing are immense, when in the hands of professional, capable data scientists. Last week the National Security Agency was under the spotlight, a month ago it was the IRS (Income Revenue Service) for a biased auditing selection algorithm, and maybe next month it will be the CDC for some other monitoring, privacy or profiling issue. Of course private corporations are not exempt either. Indeed they are sometimes accused of collusion with government agencies, to share private data.
Is it really that bad? Maybe not. First, it should come as no surprise that Intelligence agencies collect and process as much data as they can: that's their role, by definition. I don't know a single person who has been harassed or interrogated by mistake. Indeed I don't even know a single person who has been contacted by the NSA. Even when I applied for NSA data science jobs, nobody ever talked or emailed me back. They have better things to do than looking in everyone's files.
For the average person, knowing that all your online, mobile and maybe driving, medical, and other aspects of your live are tracked, can help. First, you can start paying most transactions with cash rather than credit cards. Going to the doctor anonymously (in my case, I have no doctor and no medical records - I just don't use official healthcare). You can use an alternate currency that leaves no trail - I'm working on this, working on an anonymous digital currency for bartering. On Facebook you can create fake profiles. And for email, use encryption technology: we are working on a new email web app (SaaS) that allows two individuals to exchange messages totally anonymously: once the encrypted message has been decrypted (by the intended recipient) or 48 hours after it was encrypted - whichever comes first - it can never be decrypted again, and it is not stored anywhere. In short, if the government seizes the servers and database of this company, there's no way - by design - to reconstruct or decipher the messages from customers. More details on the technology later, but it's an example of data science used to protect people against their government.
Finally, here is an interesting test that you could do to check the government's real intentions. Create false security alarms, and see what happens. Example: you pretend that you want to collect a sample of each of the 100 or so elements in our universe (gold, helium, sodium, iron, uranium, polonium, plutonium, etc). You start with all the elements above 80, to make sure you can secure thwse ones first. Chances are very high that you are going to receive a visit from the NSA. The way the meeting goes, and how they treat you (e.g. Sorry but you need a permit to keep polonium at home vs. they throw you in jail right away) will tell you if they are mean and evil, or instead care about national security only.
Those who really think that the government is going too far could saturate these security agencies, with bogus cases like the one described above: they'll make these agencies spend all their time focusing on threats that are not real. But don't count on me to help with this: I think the privacy issues are grossly exaggerated.
On a different subject, the problem of leaks is cause by a few factors. People who recently leaked information do not appear to be better than the agencies that they have deceived. Also, due to severe restrictions in the hiring process (you need a clearance to work for them), these agencies don't necessarily get the best, most faithful employees.