Big Data is Watching You

NSA surveillance methods can spin webs of guilt-by-association around any American who uses a telephone or the Internet. The end result will be unreasonable invasions of privacy and a big chill on political dissent.

Are you willing to give up your relationships with anyone who doesn’t toe the line?

I was watching the President’s press conference about NSA spying last week in the locker room of my local gym. The guy next to me was adamant that there is no problem. “They aren’t listening to your phone calls,” he insisted. I would not be surprised if this is a common reaction to the new revelations – I don’t talk about terrorism or subversion on the phone or the Internet, so I am free from suspicion.

As I thought about his words while finishing my shower, the flaw in his logic suddenly dawned on me. This kind of spying, using computers to track tremendous amounts of data, relies on the logic of guilt by association. There is no personal connection, no delving into the essence of who you are, no evaluation of you and your motives. This is “watching the tar baby” surveillance. The NSA collects the names and phone numbers and email addresses of tar babies and then records whoever gets touched by them.

The tar babies are anyone the NSA and its fellow spy agencies have decided are possible suspects. Here are a number of people whose names are almost certainly on their lists – Muslims who live in the U.S., people who participated in the Occupy Movement in any way, people who have friends or contacts in countries that are deemed influenced by terrorists, and people who participated in Tea Party rallies. There must be more because there are approximately one million people on Department of Homeland Security watch lists. And the lists are getting bigger. Wired.com revealed last year that NSA is building a $2 billion facility in Utah with enormous computers able to manipulate and track “yottabytes” (10 to the 24th bytes) of data from telephones and the Internet.

What is NSA looking for? First, it wants to identify people like you who might have contacts with one or more of the people on the watch list. Then, you go on the list, too, and the agency computers bring all of your digital information – phone numbers, number of times called, length of call, email destinations, Google searches, etc. – together in your file. The computers then go over your data to see if there are any suspicious patterns. If not, they keep collecting data and adding it to your file until your actions or contacts change, or future political leaders decide something should be done with or to people on the watch list.

Sadly, while all of this might be a bad idea, it is perfectly legal. In 2008, the U.S. Congress, including then Senator Obama, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the executive branch powers to conduct surveillance without an individual warrant. The Supreme Court, in several 5 – 4 decisions has refused to review the revised law.

Thus, my fellow exercise adherent is not immune from being swept into the NSA big data net and now faces a choice – just like the rest of us. Either carefully monitor everyone you communicate with and rapidly cut ties with anyone you suspect might be placed on the NSA watch list, or reject the creeping surveillance state that, in the name of security, is threatening our age-old civil liberties.

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