27 June 2013

Steve Russell : Big Brother in the Data Mines

Cover of the first Signet Classics edition of George Orwell's 1984. Image from Vintage Paperback Archive.
We're talking yottabytes here:  
Big Brother in the data mines
We’ve been living for some time in the world set out in Moore’s Law, which predicts that computing power will double every two years, a proposition that obviously has mathematical limits we have yet to reach.
By Steve Russell / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2013

One of the television talking heads really hurt my feelings in a report the other night on Edward Snowden, the traitorous hero or heroic traitor who leaked the existence of PRISM, wholesale collection of data from the servers of various major players on the Internet. Not once but twice, he demanded to know how a 29-year-old high school dropout could become a computer jock for the National Security Agency with a top-secret clearance?

I was once an 18-year-old high school dropout who was a computer jock for the NSA (USAF branch) with a top-secret clearance. In the three years I worked up to my elbows in top secret intelligence, I can remember two items the leaking of which would have landed the news on the front pages along with the leaker in the pokey.

We were all told regularly and often what the consequences of revealing classified information would be. Would I have done that? I like to think I would if the public interest in the information clearly outweighed my own safety, but that circumstance never came up, so I can’t know. Before you spit your coffee on the keyboard, remember that the very oath every military person takes involves putting the interests of the country above your own.

Spying on the retail level has been part of war on this continent at least since the pueblos pulled off a sneak attack that sent the Spanish colonists all the way back to El Paso del Norte, licking their wounds.

Spying on the wholesale level awaited technology, not intent. Governments had always tried to gin up networks of informers, some of which became famous in history and did the job for a period of time. Scholars estimate that one in seven East Germans informed for the Stasi on some level. People, over time, seem to revert to their own values over those imposed by government, and so become less reliable as informers. People lack the discipline of computers.

During WWII, Bletchley Park began to move warfare into the digital age. Communication had for some time been by wire and by broadcast, and so intelligence became a contest between code makers and code breakers in, as the computer geeks say, real time.

One obvious method of code breaking is to archive and collate vast numbers of messages and look for patterns. This became possible by entrusting analysis to Alan Turing’s mathematics, which became the Allies’ ACE (“Automatic Computing Engine") in the hole.

Once the algorithms were written, the issue became how to capture and store mountains of communication data. We’ve been living for some time in the world set out in Moore’s Law, which predicts that computing power will double every two years, a proposition that obviously has mathematical limits we have yet to reach.

By the time the calendar turned over the date that gives the title to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, the technology was possible for Big Brother to be watching us. When the date whizzed by with no more notice than Y2K, some of us wondered whether the American people, like Winston Smith, had learned to love Big Brother?

Image from The Matrix.
Apparently, not all people share amorous attachment to the government, since the sales of Orwell’s novel have spiked with the revelations about PRISM.

Back to the Okie teenager who got his top-secret clearance in 1965. We learned our trade on computers that stored data in kilobytes. When we moved to intelligence, we were dealing with megabytes. There were rumors about gigabytes, like the computer in my home on which I compose this column. Today’s NSA is storing data in yottabytes. That is, a septillion bytes.

We are told PRISM collects “metadata,” not identifiable to individuals or even organizations. Numbers called to and from, length of call. Not content. Not even who made the call.

Excuse me, but how would it help catch terrorists if it could not be focused on individuals or organizations? Back when I did this, just about everything we had in the computer was from communications intercepts and aircraft sorties. Collating that told us all kinds of useful things about our adversaries.

The question how many data points it takes to focus on an individual is not one of opinion but one of mathematics, and the number of data points is directly related to the level of certainty we demand. In the case of cell phone metadata, there’s some evidence that a mere four hits on the same number can identify 95% of individuals.

Because published studies in scientific journals are limited, that could be wrong, but the fact remains that the question is not one of opinion, but of mathematics.

By cross-referencing telephone and Internet metadata with bank records, which are already in electronic form and do not require a search warrant to access, the NSA can discover things about you that your parents may not know.

We are told that the metadata can be accessed from the desktop computer of any analyst who has the proper clearance. You know, like the one I had at age 18? Let’s not give Big Brother too much credit for having his attention focused on us, but let’s not pretend that it’s impossible or that the right hand always knows what the left hand is doing when thousands of people have access to yottabytes of data.

Big Brother does not care about you, but he cared enough about Martin Luther King, Jr., to bug his motel room, a laughably primitive method. He cared enough about the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement to insert double agents, which is also kind of labor intensive and old fashioned.

If the United States is data mining on this level, what do you think China and Russia are doing? China in particular has pulled off some hacks into corporate databases that left me scratching my head.

This is not an argument to shut down PRISM, assuming that would be possible given the resources already invested in storage. Consider these words like a weather report, since, after all, the databases being mined were already in corporate hands before the government touched them. I’m unclear that maximizing shareholder value is a less dangerous imperative than maintaining a government in power.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

[Steve Russell lives in Sun City, Texas, near Austin. He is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Steve was an activist in Austin in the sixties and seventies, and wrote for Austin’s underground paper, The Rag. Steve, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is also a columnist for Indian Country Today. He can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu. Read more articles by Steve Russell on The Rag Blog.]

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