Yesterday, I listened to C-SPAN's rebroadcast of the ABC Sunday news show, This Week, and heard Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressperson Mike Rogers speak about the government's collection and use of phone records.
Both feel that the surveillance being conducted is appropriate, and that there are programmatic safeguards that limit use of the collected data.
The positions expressed by both of these elected representatives were not absurd on their face, not to me. Obviously, there are separate process questions that can be asked. For instance, shouldn't more people have access to full and complete information about the program, and shouldn't the existence and parameters of the programs be subject to public debate? But both of these public officials left me with the impression that they, at least, are minding the store, and are betting their personal and professional reputations on the integrity of this national counterintelligence program.
At this stage in the developing story, both the President and those legislators defending the executive branch are emphasizing that the "content" of phone calls is not being collected. Of course, those of us working in and around technology industries know that the very most valuable content is exactly what is being assembled: the social graph, the data connecting and placing every participant in the network. It's also possible that the government may have a meta-view of all information networks, making its potential insight into patterns of both collective and individual behavior more exhaustive and more authoritative then anything a single Internet company or single telephone company could aspire to. Imagine combining all data from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and every phone company, into a single social graph. What advertisers might not pay to the government to run algorithms against that data!
Neither Feinstein door Rogers made the mistake of saying that the metadata represented by call records was harmless. Sen. Feinstein did say that the Supreme Court has held that phone records are not protected personal information, but she also clearly appreciates how valuable big data is. I say this because she made the remark that "human intelligence alone" is not adequate to foil terrorist plots in the planning. Algorithms are finding the patterns, while human covert agents watch.
If Feinstein and Rogers are to be believed, the government does not look for patterns outside of specific investigations of specific foreigners. (Unless I misheard. Thinking about it, it's hard to imagine that the program would not be used to generate leads in the first place, spawning investigations, rather than assisting in investigations opened for other reasons.) in other words, the database is queried only in connection with the pursuit of a particular target within the social graph.
Private companies with Siren Servers (Lanier's term) have no such constraints. They can mine the data, they can fix the patterns, and they can employ the intelligence bus derived to sell to and manipulate the very persons in the network whose behavior is being mapped.
We should be talking about web commerce at the same time we are debating the trade-offs in the government's counter-intelligence program.
Cartoon by John Norris / Flickr.