Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Vacuuming Up Data

Michael Tanji explains the problem with what he calls "attempting to gill-net bad guys" through mass surveillance:

It's bad enough that the Director of National Intelligence is trotting out a bogus threat so the government can snoop on all Internet traffic. What's worse is that this kind of mass surveillance is a pretty lame way to catch the honest-to-God bad guys....

This is not a needle in a haystack problem; it’s a needle somewhere in an unidentified field in the western portion of Nebraska. The problem with vacuuming up data wholesale is that even with a lot of machine-based filtering, an intelligence analyst is left with a massive pile of rock in which may lay a speck of gold. Intelligence does not want, need, look at or even retain the VAST majority of what passes through the ‘Net, which is something privacy mavens conveniently leave out of their angrily worded press releases.
Although I agree with Tanji's basic point - how could you not? - I'm always troubled when people reject textbook authoritarian measures on the basis of their inefficiency, rather than their unconstitutionality.

Even if we assume for the sake of argument (and in spite of evidence to the contrary) that raw data on law-abiding citizens have no political or economic value, questions remain about what constitutes a red flag, and about the construction of what Bruce Schneier calls "an infrastructure of surveillance," and about what Dan Lockton calls "the creeping erosion of norms" regarding privacy rights. What intelligence wants ought to be less important, legally speaking, than what they're allowed to have and how they're allowed to get it.

With this in mind, it's interesting to consider this low-tech version of mass surveillance currently underway in Phoeniz, AZ:
"The protesters, several visibly armed with guns, have been verbally engaging anyone walking by that seems to look illegal or don't seem supportive of them," Strand said. "These are residents, students, business people, neighborhood and spiritual leaders."
In theory, this group's aim is to detect illegal immigrants, which they do by challenging people who "look illegal." In pursuit of their larger political goals, however, and as an expression of the basic animus that drives them, they also end up targeting people who "don't seem supportive" of their brave efforts to defend the Homeland:
Lynne Stevens smiled and pulled open her jacket, revealing her Smith & Wesson....She scoffed at the idea that her fellow protesters are causing harm to the neighborhood. "We just want to get the illegals out of here....It's a black-and-white issue," she said. "I'm here to run them off. You turn the light on them and they scatter like roaches."
I suspect that American citizens of all colors have scattered "like roaches" in order to avoid tangling with these overwrought, abusive, visibly armed loudmouths...not least because businesses around the protest site are reporting a 15-percent drop in customers. If I were heading to a business in this area, would I wear a t-shirt that might offend someone like Lynne Stevens? I suppose it'd depend on whether I felt like getting into a potentially dangerous shouting match with an armed fanatic.

The point being that this demonstrates one of the effects of "screening" on public behavior: it can cause people to feel more vulnerable, and to change their behavior accordingly. They may not take the route they'd planned, or shop where they'd intended to, or say what's on their minds, or what have you. They may do their best not to "look illegal," and to seem "supportive" (or at least neutral); this can then conveniently be portrayed as informed consent.

Ultimately, the threat isn't that ordinary citizens will get caught doing something we're not supposed to do; it's that we'll feel insecure doing things we have every right to do.

(Illustration via Susan E. Gallagher.)

1 comment:

¡El Gato Negro! said...

Ultimately, the threat isn't that ordinary citizens will get caught doing something we're not supposed to do; it's that we'll feel insecure doing things we have every right to do.

Oh, exactamente, there was a story een the NYTimes about 3-4 years ago that made thees same point w/r/t the surveillance society that has grown een London due to the inordinately obscene numbers of security cameras there.