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By Stump Connolly

The revelation that the National Security Agency is monitoring billions of phone calls and Internet communications every day reminds me of that moment in Casablanca when Captain Renault tells Rick, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”

Is there anyone who didn’t think this was going on? You can’t watch Homeland, or NCIS, or Hawaii 5-0 for that matter, without running across that moment when someone finds a wallet and, ten minutes later, they’re tracking the owner’s credit card purchases, cell phone calls and the location of the cell phone tower where he placed the last call (aided by nearby traffic cameras).

What the NSA story brings into high relief is the vast extent of the data that is out there, and the extraordinary strides the U.S. intelligence network has taken since the World Trade Center bombing in 2011 to make sure most of it flows through some kind of government terrorist detection filter.

In March 2013, according to reports, that NSA filter collected 97 billion pieces of data from computer and telephone networks worldwide. This was possible through provisions in the American Patriot Act that allow monitoring “telephone metadata” of foreigners who are not U.S. citizens or living in the United States, although it seems that 3 percent of that traffic (roughly 3 billion pieces of data) came––inadvertently, or perhaps not––from inside the United States.

The Information Around the Content

This metadata does not include the content of emails and phone calls, rather it is all the identifying information around it: the date and time of calls and emails, the duration, the people on the receiving end, cell phone towers used, websites perused on smart phones and GPS data incorporated into geo apps. If the government wants to delve in further along a suspicious data path, it must seek a search warrant to wiretap phones or access emails from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, more commonly called the “FISA Court,” which handles these sensitive requests outside the public’s view.

There is nothing in the information revealed so far that indicates the NSA has abused its wiretap authority, or that the FISA court has not done its oversight role properly. But in the wake of last week’s disclosures, whether the government can or can’t wiretap someone seems like a quaint legal construct from a now bygone era. Once the government has the telephone metadata, it can correlate that with other readily available information from credit cards, grocery store scanners, Facebook posts, even CTA travel cards to keep track of anyone who comes into its cross hairs.

“American laws and American policy view the content of communications as the most private and most valuable kind of communications, but that is backwards today,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the electronic Privacy Information Center, told the New York Times. “The information associated with communications is often more significant than the communications itself, and the people who do the data mining know that.”

A Brave New World

In this brave new world of smart phones, social media, email and digital communications, an I.B.M. report unearthed by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times estimates the world is creating 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data every day. In defense of the NSA program, Jeremy Bash, former Pentagon chief of staff and former chief counsel to the House Intelligence committee, says, “We are trying to find a needle in a haystack, and this is the haystack.”

The federal government’s attempt to get its arms around that haystack has been far more extensive than the public realizes. One official estimates the NSA has spent $16 billion developing its cyber intelligence capabilities. At least $2 billion of that has gone toward construction of a brand new cyber data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol. When it opens later this year, it will be able to collect information on roughly 3 billion phone calls a day; more importantly, it will also be able to archive that information so call patterns over time can be discerned.

Homeland Security

The Bluffdale data center is one of 11 NSA intelligence hubs around the country that are assembling and disseminating cyber data through the network of law enforcement agencies now called Homeland Security. So much of the information coming out now has been developed under the cloak of national security there hasn’t been a full discussion of the implications of the algorithmic connections the NSA is making. The fig leaf that protects the NSA program is that this effort is directly solely at overseas targets. But to get information on those targets, the NSA has to ingest all communications by default –– foreign and domestic –– then sift out only the relevant ones.

The operative principle in government applies here: If you build it, they will abuse it. The more effective the NSA data mining becomes, the greater will be the temptation for domestic law enforcement agencies to use it either directly, or via their budding cooperation with federal officials, or by hiring one of the 400,000 private contractors working on these algorithms (with full security clearance) to develop their own parallel system.

Big Data is Everywhere

In some respects, the federal government has been late to the party on data mining. Businesses have been using the Internet from its inception to gather information on markets and competitors. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a company named Acxiom – which describes itself as “an enterprise data, analytics and software as a service company” – has been marketing information on consumer behavior to companies since the late 90’s. Today, it has an extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers –– information that Barack Obama’s 2012 tech gurus integrated into their own voter profiles to boost his turnout in the last election.

One of the great benefits of Big Data is that it can be predictive, and profitable. By studying its own sales data, for instance, Walmart discovered that it sold more pop tarts when hurricanes were predicted, so it stocked up all its stores with pop tarts during hurricane season. Facebook puts ads in front of you based on the behaviors of people you share likes with; and crowd sourcing can be used for everything from developing new products to predicting their success.

An Individual or an Anachronism

The more predictive big data becomes, the more dangerous it is to our long held assumptions about the role of individuals in society. As in the movie Minority Report, there will indicators in the data that certain individuals are “highly likely” to commit a crime. Will that be enough to ever detain them? Or just follow them very closely{

The more accurate the algorithms are, the more likely we are to invest authority into what the data is telling us. Individuals, for instance, will no longer be defined by that aggregation of quirky habits, knowledge, and experiences they gathered over a lifetime. They will be defined by who they aren’t. How far away from the norm does their profile veer? Does it differ enough to put them in a new profile group? Or can someone be an amalgam of profiles, or a subset of the data, so unconventional in his/her behavior that they stand out from the others. And does that make them an individual, or an anachronism (Webster definition:  one that is out of its proper order)?

In his remarks Friday acknowledging the NSA data-mining program, President Obama acknowledged that a myriad of questions are going to come out of this story. “One of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? I welcome this debate,” he said. “But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. … in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

Let the debate begin.


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