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Uncle Spy: Is Mining Social Everything

Legal Commentary by Edo Amin

The National Security Agency and Online Dating

Published:  2006-05-14
Related topics:  Technology & New Media  Constitutional Rights  War On Terror  N S A Phone Records  

Related News Story: White House stands firm on Hayden's CIA nomination despite new revelations of domestic surveillance

More often that not, skeletons tend to drop out of the cupboard - and into journalists' lap - in perfect timing with the career promotions of high-ranking officials. Now, the gory details of the NSA phone records database make their way into the public agenda three years after the act. And it is certainly disconcerting; just a year before the NSA approached telcos to gain access to phone records, I was involved with personal data databases myself — being the product manager of a NYC Internet firm that walked the fine line between online advertising and spyware. Phone numbers ONLY? Well, phone numbers are an excellent link between databases, and online advertising moguls drool at the idea of the resulting synergy. We did, at that time, and the only thing that stopped some of us of going further (besides our attorneys) were the legal troubles of advertising giant DoubleClick. I recommend this CNET article on the Abacus/Doubleclick case to anyone who doesn’t see why anonymous phone numbers can be the missing link in a major privacy breach.

So this was the “zeitgeist” in 2000-2001; Great minds think alike, and it seems NSA heads and the world’s top marketers were thinking along the same line - if differently equipped to execute their ideas. And there was yet another crowd besides e-marketers and snoops.

Wired was quick to identify the NSA project as “Social Software Analysis”. Much like neural networks, social software relies on endless interpolation of social dimensions, and can suck up a lot of computing resources. The NSA has no shortage in that department, but it’s interesting that around the time the NSA implemented its Orwellian project, several “social software” projects bloomed in the civilian sphere; Friendster (2002) and others. 2002 saw the first “Social Software Summit”, primarily populated by progressive developers whose mind set was as far away from the NSA’s as “make love not war” is from “war on terror”.

Such is the spirit of the time: it databases when it comes database time, I suppose. Or maybe there’s more to it than that? The passage of ideas from the military domain into civil culture is a repeating pattern in the history of computing, from artificial intelligence to cellular phones to the much celebrated history the Internet itself — a DARPA project that apparently snowballed out of control. Is it just the spirit of the times that makes social software so attractive and lucrative, or has a military project unwittingly inspired our dating life — once again?

One thing I wouldn’t be worried about is about the actual calls. You see, the “6 degrees” theory shows that each of us may very well be 6 contacts away from any other person on the globe — be it President Bush or Ossama Bin Laden, which means you can’t interpolate too far from one of the myriad contacts we make daily, and the more you’ll search for meaning, the more you’ll drown in meaningless details. The NSA database can track the spreading of terrorist activity with the same degree of success it can track the spread, or the retreat, of the flu virus. Another weakness, and a reason why the “6 degree” theory has yet to find a serious implementation in civilian life, is that it requires serious resources. Listening to everyone means spreading your resources very thin, allowing for large delays, and for less than ideal quality. So Big Brother may be watching our phone calls — but in a very low resolution. I doubt that with all that weight, he’ll be capable of looking after each and every citizen in the nightmarish sense of George Orwell’s 1984.

And there’s another comforting thought, for those who wonder what inconvenient personal details are stored in Big Brother’s supermind. And this is the thought: looking at our culture's past, and interpolating into the future, it should be pretty safe to predict that in the long run, say in 30 years, eavesdropping to people will be considered more shameful that some things we wish to hide from Big Brother. In fact, perhaps the wait will be considerably shorter.

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