NSA data-mining vs. actual invasion of privacy

I thought the WSJ made an interesting point in an editorial this morning:

The NSA is collecting “metadata”—logs of calls received and sent, and other types of data about data for credit card transactions and online communications. Americans now generate a staggering amount of such information—about 161 exabytes per year, equal to the information stored in 37,000 Libraries of Congress. Organizing and making sense of this raw material is now possible given advances in information technology, high-performance computing and storage capacity. The field known as “big data” is revolutionizing everything from retail to traffic patterns to epidemiology.

Mr. Obama waved off fears of “Big Brother” but he might have mentioned that the paradox of data-mining is that the more such information the government collects the less of an intrusion it is. These data sets are so large that only algorithms can understand them. The search is for trends, patterns, associations, networks. They are not in that sense invasions of individual privacy at all.

If the NSA isn’t scrubbing vast amounts of data, then it can’t discover who is potentially a threat. The alternative to automated sweeps is more pervasive use of lower-tech methods like wiretaps, tracking and searches—in a word, invasions of persons rather than statistical probabilities. The political attack on data-mining could increase rather than alleviate the risk to individual rights.

10 thoughts on “NSA data-mining vs. actual invasion of privacy

  1. Doug Ross

    I will say it again. If we don’t have anything to worry about, prove it. Give us one example of how the system has worked.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, I don’t have that information in hand, but I’ll be on the lookout for it.

      Meanwhile, could you provide us with one example (or more) of how the program has done harm.

    1. Mark Stewart

      And that was related to this meta data collection and mining or to focused surveillance? Unknowable, and therefore undefinable.

  2. Mark Stewart

    Both of your questions highlight the inherent problem with this situation: Nobody knows what the government knows, nor how it might use what it has learned in the future. This is a very dangerous thing for a professed democratic republic.

    Never before has the government been able to monitor every citizen all of the time. Not some people some of the time. Or even some people all of the time. Everyone all the time. Personally, I think that an overreach of authority.

    Sitting here typing this on my iPad, I begin to glance at the little camera lense on the left; I want to cover it with my finger… I’m very far from ever being considered a paranoid person; but I do not like the potential ramifications of unfettered data surveillance for our society.

    What are we gaining going down this “anti-terrorism” road? And what is it costing us in terms of our principals and liberties? This is at its heart a question of balance. It seems we may be teetering a bit here. We will only know with daylight and disclosure and debate. If we do not get those in reasonable doses, then we have given ourselves over to despotism – now or certainly in the future.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But what do you mean by “monitor?”

      I joked earlier about making a note to mention on my phone how much I love Big Brother, and Scout pointed out that since the NSA isn’t actually listening to my calls, but doing a sort of advanced traffic analysis on millions of calls in the aggregate, my expression of self-serving devotion would fall on deaf ears. Or rather, on no ears.

      “Monitor,” to me, suggests what was depicted in “The Lives of Others.”

      1. Mark Stewart

        And what if that joke triggered an algorithmic response that flagged you for monitoring?

        Like if you suddenly found yourself on the TSA selectee list, and had no recourse to finding out why? Wall Street has several times suffered from this data sweeping with massive market sell-offs (and buying binges). But there, the market can punish erroneous or exuberant programming – and does. You will have no such luck with the government.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Aw, quit yer worrying!

          It’s not like Uncle Sam is going to spot what I’m typing, send a death ray through my webcam, and ARRRGGGGHHHH!

  3. Tom Stickler

    Perhaps those upset that NSA has amassed telephony metadata would like to return to the days of the party line telephone? At least you had reasonable suspicion that someone was actually, currently listening to what you were saying, so you minded your manners and were careful not to divulge embarrassing items.

    Today, no one is actually listening, but should there be probable cause that you had committed some crime. a judge can sign a warrant and then, and only then, someone can actually listen to what you said.

    So, mind your manners and be polite, and don’t divulge embarrassing items, just like grandma did.

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