Stephen Baker

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Inside the NSA matrix: What can they learn?

March 19, 2012Hop Skip Go

Anyone concerned about privacy might read James Banford's cover story in Wired: Inside the Matrix. It puts together the elements of the coming total information awareness state--but with one big missing piece.

The pieces he describes include 1) an enormous new National Security Agency datacenter in Utah that will store virtually all of our communications and digital musings, and 2) ultra-powerful supercomputers designed to crack the cryptography protecting much of that information. So eventually, the thinking goes, the NSA will be able to read our communications, study our pictures, and trace our patterns backwards in time. Theoretically, they'll be able to profile each one of us: What we say, where we go, who we hang around (and even sleep) with.

As one his chief former NSA source tells him, holding his thumb and forefinger close together, " We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state."

Now, the missing piece. Nowhere in the article do we learn how the NSA will actually make sense of all of this data, especially for counter-terrorism. What are the patterns of potential terrorists? This is something I grappled with in The Numerati. I went to Jeff Jonas for insights. His point was that this type of information is valuable once you are focused on a suspect, but that you cannot hope to find potential suspects by datamining exabytes of phone calls and e-mails. He called that "boiling the ocean."

The trouble is that while the government may have detailed information about hundreds of millions of taxpayers and an equal number of drivers, they have the historical records on only a relative handful of terrorists. What is it about the patterns of those terrorists that they might be able to find in the collected communications of the entire planet earth? That is the unanswered question in the Wired story. And I would suspect that that's because there is no answer.

So then, assuming that the NSA can crack these troublesome codes, what can they do with all of this data? Well, they can trace the people they actually suspect of crimes. But theoretically, they could do that without including the rest of us. Of course, they could (and probably will) continue to hunt for the patterns of potential terrorists, though the prospects don't look too promising.

It might be more fruitful to focus datamining on well established patterns, and on crimes that more of us commit, like tax evasion. If that happens, the small coterie of privacy advocates worried about the turnkey totalitarian state will quickly gain millions of angry supporters.


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