A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah May 18. Technology holds the power to discover terrorism suspects from data—and yet to also safeguard privacy even with bulk telephone and email data intact, the author argues.
I must disagree with my fellow liberals. The NSA bulk data shutdown scheduled for November 29 is unnecessary and significantly compromises intelligence capabilities. As recent tragic events in Paris and elsewhere turn up the contentious heat on both sides of this issue, I’m keenly aware that mine is not the usual opinion for an avid supporter of Bernie Sanders (who was my hometown mayor in Vermont).
But as a techie, a former Columbia University computer science professor, I’m compelled to break some news: Technology holds the power to discover terrorism suspects from data—and yet to also safeguard privacy even with bulk telephone and email data intact. To be specific, stockpiling data about innocent people in particular is essential for state-of-the-art science that identifies new potential suspects.
I’m not talking about scanning to find perpetrators, the well-known practice of employing vigilant computers to trigger alerts on certain behavior. The system spots a potentially nefarious phone call and notifies a heroic agent—that’s a standard occurrence in intelligence thrillers, and a common topic in casual speculation about what our government is doing. Everyone’s familiar with this concept.
Rather, bulk data takes on a much more difficult, critical problem: precisely defining the alerts in the first place. The actual “intelligence” of an intelligence organization hinges on the patterns it matches against millions of cases—it must develop adept, intricate patterns that flag new potential suspects. Deriving these patterns from data automatically, the function of predictive analytics, is where the scientific rubber hits the road. (Once they’re established, matching the patterns and triggering alerts is relatively trivial, even when applied across millions of cases—that kind of mechanical process is simple for a computer.)
It may seem paradoxical, but data about the innocent civilian can serve to identify the criminal. Although the ACLU calls it “mass, suspicionless surveillance,” this data establishes a baseline for the behavior of normal civilians. That is to say, law enforcement needs your data in order to learn from you how non-criminals behave. The more such data available, the more effectively it can do so.
This Newsweek article, originally published in Newsweek’s opinion section and excerpted here, resulted from the author’s research for a new extended sidebar on the topic that will appear in the forthcoming Revised and Updated, paperback edition of Eric Siegel’s Predictive Analytics: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die (coming January 6, 2016).