Sunday, June 16, 2013

Debate on US government's "metadata" snooping splits like thunderstorm line.

The debate is definitely splitting (rather like a storm crossing a mountain range)  on the moral legitimacy of the NSA “monitoring” of Americans’ communications by all means – land and cell phone calls, emails, and social media use supposedly whitelisted. 
The NSA says that this is more or less like the “”pen register”  kept by hand in the 19th century by the telegraph industry, even in the Carrington days.  Generally, the government can look at the manifests of “metadata” (the source and destination of communications) without warrants.  Looking at content is a totally different matter, usually requiring a warrant or court order, although the FISA courts have made this pretty easy. 
Bob Sullivan of NBC News explained all this in an essay (Big Brother may not be listening but he’s watching; why metadata snooping is legal”) recently here.   Emails are a bit of an issue;  unopened emails can be read for up to 180 days  (Stored Communications Act. here ).  

The value to the “government” of metadata snooping is a matter of topology.  The government could measure the number of “degrees of separation” between me and a known terrorist.  Say it’s 10.  That might be scary, or perhaps a coincidence.  But the number of paths with this node-count matters.  If it’s high, it could suggest that I have some dangerous social contacts.   All of this comes from graph theory in topology (especially algebraic topology) which I studied as a grad student (and got an M.A.) in the 1960s.  I think I mentioned this a few years back to an AP math class at a high school a few miles from the CIA when I was substitute teaching.  Oh, that was before Facebook had become so important, though.

Daniel J. Solove, law professor at George Washington University, has an op-ed on p B3 of the Washington Post today, “5 myths about privacy”,  link here.   Solove has authored several books on Internet issues..  (I have reviews of “The Future of Reputation on Nov. 5, 1008 and “Understanding Privacy” on Jan. 12, 2008 on my Books blog;  Solove authored “Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security” in 2011, which I should read;  I have two other critical items ahead of it in line!) 
Solove discusses his book in a series of videos about a year old from te CFP Conference, “Frontiers in Privacy and Security”.   I’ll have to check into this in more detail soon. 

Solove points point that “metadata” can really tell a government a lot about a person.  The real reason it isn’t a “threat” to most people in the mainstream is that this administration’s values do seem progressive to most people in the mainstream, especially minorities (sexual and racial).  On the other hand, people who believe that they must defend themselves “outside the system” (the gun rights and “Doomsday Prepper” crowd) may well feel uncomfortable about data collection.  For example., the government could figure out who is likely to own large caches of “illegal” weapons from metadata.  But this could be important to general security, to prevent unconventional attacks from extremists, or rampages from psychopaths. 

I can relate to Solove’s point as a gay man who grew up in the 50's.  Remember how, in his book “Conduct Unbecoming”, journalist Randy Shilts related that in some cases people were thrown out of the military for merely “associating with homosexuals”?  I grew up in a world (especially the Korea to Vietnam era, encompassing the Cuban Missile Crisis) when “associations” could make one appear as a potentially “Communist” or possibly merely disruptive social subversive.  I don’t fear that now personally from the government (in the post-DADT era).  But I see Solove’s point.
There’s another idea.  Anyone who stands out and who is socially isolated can be vulnerable (or be seen as vulnerable) to making enemies, but not so much by government itself but by other indignant elements in society.  Hacking, after all, often means private “surveillance” by possible stalkers or hostile people.  In a worst case scenario, an “enemy” can set up someone to be frame for a crime and bring on the government as an accomplice.  But the problem of “surveillance” is much bigger than just the government’s doing it.
So I do have some appreciation for the position of the NBC article.  Americans and westerners do face unconventional threats.  The Boston Marathon attacks were unusually in the personal way gruesome injuries were inflicted on a small number of people, conscripting them into becoming visible “casualties” in someone else’s war.  But other attacks, such as EMP (electromagnetic pulse), which can be somewhat localized, could attack our infrastructure and way of life.  Dick Cheney has been reported as saying that better surveillance by the NSA should have stopped 9/11.   Metadata surveillance does improve the odds that such attacks will be intercepted.  It’s rather like pass defense in football. 

The Post Outlook section today also has a related piece by Nancy Scola, “The Big Data President; Obama Is Meta About Data”. 

There is more news Sunday night about Snowden’s “Wikileaks II” about spying on diplomats, reported so far only in the Guardian, but that’s a topic for another article.

All of this is “to be continued.”

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