Tuesday, August 27, 2013

 Coming soon to a paranoid fantasy near you.

GG: I think this will be the time the world realizes that the US and its closest allies are trying to build a surveillance system that has as its primary objective the elimination of privacy globally, by which I mean that everyone’s communications electronically will be collected, stored, analyzed and monitored by the US government.

Think about that for a moment, and it's ludicrous.  It's not reality, it's paranoid fantasy.  It's not the product of reason but of delusion.*

If everyone's communications were electronically collected, stored, analyzed, and monitored by the US government, how many people would it take to do that?  Computers, we are told, can "mine" data.  But not by themselves.  We haven't built Skynet yet; we don't have a computer capable of such independent action, or even of self-awareness.  The problem of consciousness and self-awareness necessary to create an intellectual distinction between "self" and "object" such as to be aware one could "know" data, is far beyond the capability of the most advanced computer available; and probably always will be.

So for a computer program to mine data, the program has to be written; then it has to be run; and someone, at least one human being, has to put an eyeball on the results, and decide what to do with them.  How many human beings does it take to look at the results of the data mining of every piece of electronic communications on the planet?  Not half of them; technology means we don't need a 1:1 ratio.  But how many?

The world population is estimated at 7 billion.  Not nearly all of those people are engaged in electronic communications, but still, let's say half are, so 3.5 billion.  The US population is 316 million.  If we employed about half the US population, or 158 million people, in tracking the electronic communications of everyone else, they could each track about 20 people per day, all day, every day.  Frankly, much more than 20 people and you'd start to lose efficiency, I think.  And of course some of those 20 people apiece would have to be employees of the US government.  Somebody's gotta watch the watchers, right?

Including the military (but not the Snowdens), the federal government  employs about 4.1 million people.  If we engaged every one of those people in spying on the entire planet, they'd each have to keep track of 853 people every day, all day.  That's if you want government to know what everyone else on the planet is saying.  Just having the data is, apparently, meaningless.  Ask Google.  Ask Verizon.  Ask AT&T.  They have this stuff already, or a lot of it; but no one is accusing them of "knowing" this data.  Even Google "reading" e-mail is just a program looking for and identifying a set of keywords.  There is no group of human beings reading every e-mail sent through Google mail and deciding what ad to pop up in response to it.

Knowing takes human beings.  I know what I am typing here, but my computer no more "knows" what these words mean than my cat does.  Knowledge takes human beings.  And how is one human being going to "know" what 853 human beings are saying all day, every day?

And I haven't even addressed what kind of data storage and computational power it would take to "data mine" all the electronic communications of the entire world.  This isn't science fiction; someone somewhere doesn't push a button and the blinkenlights blink and the spiztensparkens spit, and an answer pops out.  The sheer weight of data would overwhelm any system; by the time you had analyzed something, you'd find out in 2003 that Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the US.

Maybe.  If he was stupid enough to use electronic communications, instead of couriers, as we know Al Qaeda usually does.

You may say I'm stretching the meaning of the verb "to know" here, but what else can it mean?  This data is generated even as I press the button to publish this post.  It's generated when I hit "send" on an e-mail, or a text message; it's generated when I push "Call" and make a phone call.  That's not even news.  Who "knows" that data is apparently the scare point.  But who realistically can?  If the US government is engaged in a nefarious plot to know all the electronic communications of the world, then the people in charge of that are delusional and mad, and I'm worried about them.

But so far the only evidence I see of delusion is the guy saying this is all possible and its going to happen.  And he doesn't work for the government.

Or so he says.....

*but remember, this isn't about Glenn Greenwald. It can't possibly be.


  1. You may say I'm stretching the meaning of the verb "to know" here, but what else can it mean?

    That's the key question here, ain't it? Computer memory and processing power is increasingly cheap. Automated pattern recognition and data-banking technologies are getting better and better. To say that it's inconceivable for the government to archive all electronic communications and be able to flag a small percentage as worth looking into is to invite Inigo Montoya's response to Vizzini about the use of that word: after all, Google does nearly this all the time as you point out. And since my electronic communications are, in many ways, my "effects", I would say I have a right to be secure from government intrusion into them and if SCOTUS nevertheless maintains the NSA's activities to be constitutional and hence legal, then it's time for Congress to change the laws.

    But, as you ask, do Google's computers have knowledge?

    To put this another way: why is the government so upset about leaks relating to NSA's activities. They claim that us knowing what the government can know harms national security, but does it? Perhaps too many people in positions of positions of power are too paranoid. Or perhaps the real issue is that, forgetting about the fevered dreams people have of what the NSA can do, the very fact that we have to resort to data-mining to find terrorists indicates how little we actually know? And revealing that the man behind the curtain is not an all powerful wizard reveals our weakness?

    After all, if we really could and did know every move of our enemies, wouldn't we want our enemies to know that "they can run but they can't hide"? So why the secrecy if the programs are legal (according to SCOTUS, et al, which get to define the law) and working? Unless maybe the real issue is not that the government knows so much about everyone and everything, but that we are really just using a lot of data to hide our lack of knowledge.

    Suddenly all of the massive databases Snowden, et al, allege the government has begin to seem like C+ undergraduate papers trying to make up for a lack of thesis statement and analysis by sheer verbiage and verbatim quotes from wikipedia.

  2. Let me see if I can fit this into two comments, because I'm sure I'll make just one, explode.

    I've been told by my superiors never to put private info, like grades, into an e-mail to a student. The presumption is anyone can open that e-mail and read it, so it isn't "private." True, anyone at home could open a letter addressed to the student, but the presumption they won't protects me from being charged with violating that student's privacy when I use snail mail instead of e-mail.

    We need these distinctions in order to function. Tradition says the addressee opens the envelope; technology means anyone with access to the account (or the refresh, if the program is running) can see the e-mails. Ergo....

    We clearly need some expectation of privacy, but we can't expand it to apply to all and everything. Metadata, for example, the stuff generated when you make a land-line call, has been around for decades, and AT&T has always had it. Since 1979, the Supreme Court has said that's fair game for a criminal investigation, and no one has much noticed.

    There is also the issue of how this information is used, how it is "looked into." But I have a post coming up on that, later. And, again, if the government decided to track your movements, to record where you went, what you did, who you talked to, for how long, and when you went home; they could do it. Outside your front door, your actions are public and not protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy. There's a great deal of our electronic communication that would probably fit the same reasoning.

    As for this:

    Suddenly all of the massive databases Snowden, et al, allege the government has begin to seem like C+ undergraduate papers trying to make up for a lack of thesis statement and analysis by sheer verbiage and verbatim quotes from wikipedia.

    I completely agree. From what I understand, all the NSA can do anyway is establish patterns based on some known information (a telephone number known to be "dirty") to unknown information (who calls/is called by that number?). Even that level of data is imprecise. Snowden and Greenwald claim the level is so precise they can find your cell phone and turn it on anywhere in the world, and listen to what the cell phone can "hear."

    Which is insane, IMHO. It's a paranoid's fantasy. OTOH, the idea all this metadata will pile up and yield the needle of gold in the haystack is a bit fantastic, too, IMHO. As you say, if they can't dazzle us with brilliance, they all seem determined to baffle us with bullshit.

    At the end of the day, I'm still not convinced the NSA is worth paying for.

  3. Why does the tradition that I don't open your snail mail not apply to your e mail? It seems to me the only difference is it will be a lot more difficult for me to read your letters undetected.

  4. Why does the tradition that I don't open your snail mail not apply to your e mail? It seems to me the only difference is it will be a lot more difficult for me to read your letters undetected.

    Because it hasn't been established, for one thing. Because there is a distinct difference between opening an e-mail and opening an envelope, for another.

    Leave your e-mail program open, anyone can read it. Use a common e-mail program (as my wife and I do), and anyone using that address can expect anyone else with the password to read what comes in.

    I don't open mail addressed to my daughter. I do open e-mails if she uses my e-mail address. Only then do I find out they are addressing her, not me.

    Too late then.

  5. Hmmm. Family, with shared computers and e mail accounts, isn't quite what I thought you were talking about.

    I would be rather surprised to see statistics or a study that says, outside a family or committed relationship, very many people would feel opening and reading someone else's e mail was any more acceptable than opening and reading their snail mail. I've borrowed/played around with different computers and it never occurred to me to even *try* getting into their owners' e mail programs.

    But if I'm the outlier, and most everybody else feels an unattended computer is fair game to read whatever they find, I don't think the relative security of a sealed envelope is long for this world. Progress is more of a shuffle, seems to me, than leaps and bounds or even steps - something worthwhile is always lost

  6. Well, within the limited context of treating 18 year old students as adults. It's an interesting dynamic when I get a "dual credit" student whose parents want to discuss their student's progress with me, or get their grades, and I can't give them as a matter of law. I'm charged with protecting the student's privacy, as the student is an adult by the time they (usually) reach college, not a minor.

    Which is why the envelope presumption exists: to protect me as much as anything else. E-mail can both be read by anyone who can access your inbox, but it can also be easily sent to everyone else with the push of a button. As I think I said in the post (I've said it before), I've received many a personal e-mail (or about something I have no interest in) sent as a "reply all" when "reply" was more appropriate.

    You don't really get that with a written letter, even in days of desktop copy machines. Custom created by use is part of the determination of how much privacy you can reasonably expect in the form of communication.