CommunityMy FDL

NSA Scandal: I Got Algorithm

When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time. “We can find all sorts of correlations and patterns,” said one government computer scientist. New York Times

If the search for those planning terror attacks is like looking for a needle in a haystack, however, then first thing one needs is a haystack. Haaretz

Now that we are envisioning some guy in a National Security Agency warehouse in Fort Meade, Md., going through billions of cat videos and drunk-dialing records of teenagers, can the Ministries of Love and Truth be far behind? Maureen Dowd – NYT

Who Owns the Future cover

Who Owns the Future by Jared Lanier sheds light on the current NSA scandal.

Reading Jason Lanier’s important new book, Who Owns the Future, shortly before the NSA scandal broke, helped me to get a better understanding of what has happened.  Lanier says that we are giving away very valuable marketing information (data) about ourselves, our tastes, our ideas, our location from moment to moment, in exchange for free email, and places to meet others of similar tastes, etc. This is the significance of “Big Data,” the masses of personal information that Amazon, Google and Facebook gather from their users, which allows them to place an ad on the page you are reading, like the CIA places a Hellfire rocket from a drone.

And Lanier maintains that the most powerful individuals and companies in the near future will be the ones with the biggest servers, “Siren-Servers,” he calls them, those that amass and can process more data about their customer’s (just about everyone’s) lives. What the NSA has been doing naturally follows from that: the US government owns the biggest servers and they are milking the “Siren-Servers” like a herd of milch cows.

You thought that in the new Internet world that maybe Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg were going to be bigger swinging dicks than the head of the CIA? Think again.

What the NSA appears to be doing is to correlate almost all the big social data that American firms possess. I don’t know if at that point we really have a reason to complain, as Lanier points out in his book, we are giving all that valuable information about ourselves away for free to people like “don’t be evil” Google, in exchange for “free” email, cloud space, etc.

If you took the trouble (which nobody ever does) to read the lengthy texts that come above the “AGREE” button that we eagerly click on in order to get all the free stuff, you would probably find buried in it some lawyerly little clause where you agree to let them share it with the government. Therefore this marketing and location information (not the contents of the emails) probably IS public domain.

What we really have to investigate is how the government correlates what Haaretz calls the “haystack,” what are the algorithms that the NSA is using, how are threats defined, what the correlations might be. One thing is Amazon figuring out what books you might enjoy or Facebook thinking you might be interested in deep-dish pizza and quite another thing is the FBI thinking you are a threat to national security. In short we need to know how the system works, what criteria the government agencies are employing in processing all this data that we have given away for free.

What sort of results has it produced? What plots have been foiled? Whose lives have been saved? This information is essential for the public in a democracy to evaluate the tradeoffs involved. The resulting “safety” may not justify the loss of trust in those sworn to protect us.

It seems to me, with the meager information I possess, that this kind of data correlating might easily lead to discovering a network of child pornographers or cannibals, but I’m a bit skeptical about the value of what they are collecting if it is for catching serious terrorists, spies and criminals. The really serious ones are not that generous with their data.

Back at the turn of the century, I remember reading the legendary East German spymaster, Markus Wolf’s fascinating autobiography, Man Without A Face. Way back then, Wolf laughed at anyone who would digitize any serious information so that a “schoolboy in Kansas” could access it from his bedroom and he wrote that he kept the names of his agents in his head and didn’t even commit them to paper. We also know from our readings that capo mafiosi and Sea Org Scientologists do all their phoning from payphones and have masses of quarters on hand for this purpose. And who can forget that the greatest terrorist in history, Osama bin Laden probably managed to survive as long as he did after 9-11 because he only communicated using couriers.

So just to recap, we had better hurry and check to see that if “in a fit of absent mindedness ” we haven’t actually happily given Facebook and Google permission to give all our “secrets” to the security state. And then we should demand to know in detail what criteria are used in determining what minute flotsam in this endless ocean of data might cause any individual (presumed innocent till proven guilty) to be singled out for intense surveillance by the security forces of a democracy.

Cross posted from:

Previous post

The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority - Book Salon Preview

Next post

Bradley Manning's Trial, NSA Leaks & the Ever-Increasing Secrecy of the National Security State

David Seaton

David Seaton