Let's not get distracted as a nation from the real problem: our sorry state of analytics.
The Natural Language Processing libraries allow systems to do that work on a massive scale. They look for red-flag words and help decipher meaning. And before you let your sci-fi imagination run away, it's not that sophisticated. Regardless of what you saw on Person of Interest, the kind of artificial intelligence that should scare you is decades away.
Finding meaning in text (even crudely!) is important because of the unimaginable scale of data that needs to be mined. We're not talking about mountains of data. That analogy is so 1986. Today's data mountains are like turducken: mountains within mountains within mountains. Deep fried.
There's no manual exercise that will help.
And that exact data blindness is how the FBI missed the story of Zacarias Moussaoui and his flight school in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Prism might have helped.
I say "might" because technology is anything but infallible. All code is fragile and buggy. But rest assured that technology, unlike humans, lacks ill intent. It's not out to get you. A system like Prism doesn't give a rat's ass about your conversations with your mom or lover.
And even if you were talking about bombing at the local open mic night, it wouldn't be a red flag unless you also happened to be chatting it up with a known terrorist. Without the intersection of the graph and NLP, there'd be too many red flags for law enforcement to pursue.
So statistically speaking, that ridiculous secret of yours --the one that no one but you cares about but the one you don't want the government to know about -- is safe. Hallelujah.
And that brings me to my four favorite words: You are not special.
The people working at the NSA don't care about your dumb life or your stupid fetish. They didn't take government pay so they could read your banal emails or listen to your limp conversations. They care about stopping bad guys. And quickly.
If you're afraid that they'll overreach and start listening to your calls or reading your emails, get over yourself. How embarrassing for you that your narcissism is your defining quality.
As for Edward Snowden …
He's not a hero. He's an attention whore.
And he's not a technologist, or he would've figured out what Prism is really capable of.
I even question whether he was working alone. I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, but the whole thing smells like what would happen if a group of monied interests -- the vendors who sold the systems to the government -- needed to explain why their systems weren't operating as well as they should. A leak would relieve them of any responsibility (i.e., the reason our system isn't working is because everyone knows about it).
I'll leave that scenario to be fleshed out by John Grisham. Although to be fair, Daniel Suarez would be the better choice.
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Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of September 18, 2016. We'll be talking with the InformationWeek.com editors and correspondents who brought you the top stories of the week to get the "story behind the story."