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Data mining democracy

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 14, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 4: How big data has created a surveillance state…


I would like to say that the latest revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden were new, but he is only the latest in a long list of people who have attempted to show what a surveillance state the ‘free world’ has become.

Snowden has exposed to the public several US programs where they, among other things, are storing every phone call made in the USA…or routed through the USA…well not every conversation but what is called meta data (the importance of which we discussed in Part 3).

kipLyallCartoon_NSA_72dpiDemocratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi let slip that this bulk vacuuming up of data has been going on since 2006.

News reports also confirm that the Postal Service is recording the ‘meta-data’ of snail-mail including taking photos of the letters/packages. (At least in the USA, but I don’t think it would be different here…)

It has also come to light that a ‘drop box’ of some sort is being used by the NSA (National Security Agency) to duplicate and transfer internet traffic from all the major internet companies…Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.

The corporations are quick to point out they have not broken any law…and they seem to have not. That said, what makes this very Kafkaesque is the fact the legal justification for this Big Brother surveillance is itself secret.

Is the government saying that what they are doing is legal but they can’t show you why it’s legal because if they did, well that would be illegal?

In an exchange where General Keith Alexander, the NSA chief, told a Senate panel the surveillance program had stopped “dozens” of terrorist events. How many, exactly? The number was classified, he said.

When Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley held up his cellphone and asked, “What authorized investigation gave you the grounds for my cellphone data?” Gen. Alexander said the matter was classified.

cbe0607cd-verizon-and-the-nsa-500So, just to parse that, a Senator…responcible for the public and legal oversight of the NSA’s activities…he asked why they were collecting HIS phone data (implicitly confirming that EVERYONE’S data is being collected), the General, refused to answer. How can there be proper democratic oversight when even the people responsible for said oversight are kept in the dark?

A few weeks ago when the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing…and I quote “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

He answered and again I quote “No, sir,” and added “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

With the revelations of Snowden, we now know that was a lie…when confronted about this lie he responded “in what I thought was the least untruthful manner”.


As Republican Justin Amash put it “Congress can’t make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements,”

Now I looked up the meaning of wittingly…and it has two meanings…one definitely a false hood…that meaning is defined as “Aware or conscious of something” which it was painfully obvious at the time he knew that not to be true.

The other meaning “Done intentionally or with premeditation”…which could fit here, if we accept that I put a bunch of rocks into the river to make a bridge (this is the “we are collecting phone call data to catch terrorists”) and had no intention of causing a flood by the now blocked river (this is the vacuuming up of ALL phone data to go back and find the terrorist calls).

NSA-Like-MeAnother point of semantics is the word “collected”…to explain the meaning of this term, the USA security forces use a library metaphor. Let’s assume the phone data is like a book, the caller/called are the authors and the data warehouse is a library…note that Clapper is admitting they have been storing it all (and presumably still are).

An Agent…and who qualifies as an agent is something to be brought up later…an Agent has a library card that allows him to take out only select books. If he picks up a book and its cover says one of its ‘authors’ are foreign, he can ‘read’ or surveil the book/data. If the authors are American citizen then he must put it back and get a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order to look at it.

Now it’s important to note, another thing we have learnt from the Snowden whistle-blowing, is the threshold for ‘foreign’ is a 51% confidence…that is there is a check list (let’s say a 100 points) that determines if the ‘author’ is foreign. If you check 51 points…then according to the NSA you are not an American citizen and they can ignore your privacy.

So to the US government’s “collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it”…and that they claim not to have done en mass.

nsa-spy-cartoon-3The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out ‘data acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form.’…so processed now means collected and collected means what again?

They go on to say that “In other words, the NSA can intercept and store communications in its database, then have an algorithm search them for key words and analyze the metadata without ever considering the communications ‘collected’. Only when an actual person looks at the data is it considered ‘collected’.

What an excellent example of ‘double speak’.

Let’s have one last word here to point out that the initial investigation is not done by a person…it is automated data mining of vast quantities of data…the epitome of Big Data.

pol_boozchart25_950I have not mentioned it previously, but it’s important to point out that the apparent vast majority of the government data collection is not the government. That is, this task has largely been outsourced to private corporations. That is how Snowden was able to get the depth and breadth of information he could without being a member of the government. It is this privatization of government surveillance and data collection that makes our next segment possible.

In Part 5 we will take a look at what would have been ‘crazy conspiracy theories’ but suddenly seem to have (at least the whiff of ) plausibility as the lines between corporate and goverment big data blur.


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