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7/8/2013
07:10 PM
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Why Prism Is The Right Investment

Let's not get distracted as a nation from the real problem: our sorry state of analytics.

Prism doesn't scare me.

On 9/11, my office was on the 39th floor of One World Trade. I was one of the many nameless people you saw on the news running from the towers as they collapsed.

But the experience didn't turn me into a hawk. In fact, I despise the talking heads who frame Prism as the price we pay for safety. And not just because they're fear-mongering demagogues.

I hate them because I'm a technologist and they're giving technology a bad name.

Let's start with the basics.

[ Meet IBM's "Engagement Advisor," a computer that can take customer complaints. Read Watson Gets Call Center Job. ]

What is Prism? If you're the vendor that sold it to the National Security Agency, Prism is a proprietary black box that applies state-of-the-art predictive analytics to big data to infer relationships between known terrorists and their social networks. That's marketing jargon, so let's break it down.

Note that the only thing proprietary in that last paragraph is the vendor's hokey sales pitch. Everything mentioned there can be built with open-source tools, specifically a scalable distributed graph such as Neo4j and some natural language processing (NLP) libraries from Stanford University. So if you're in government IT or purchasing, don't buy the vendor BS.

First, the graph ...

In theory, every person in the world can be a node on a graph. And every communication between two people is just a relationship between those two unique nodes. So if you were able to compel Verizon and every carrier in the world to give you their complete call records, you could create the world's largest game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Supplement those phone records (as the thing that connects two people) with emails, instant messages, known aliases and financial transactions, and your ability to infer relationships dramatically improves.

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That, by the way, is the same kind of inference engine that companies such as Amazon use to figure out which products to suggest you buy. It's a more sophisticated way of asking if you want fries with that. Only in this case, instead of advancing commercialism, law enforcement gets to quickly determine the social networks of known terrorists.

This isn't some dystopian Minority Reports-like future. This is good old-fashioned policing supplemented by technology. Instead of manually sifting through phone records and drawing lines on a whiteboard between grainy pictures of suspects (a la every serial killer movie you've ever seen), the NSA is using a graphing engine.

And for the best reason possible: to speed up the narrowing of the search.

Next, the NLP ...

So now you know who's communicating with whom. How can you make sense of content: the billions of hours of real-time voice and email exchanges between people? You certainly don't want to hire tens of millions of analysts to listen, translate and raise their hands whenever someone that's two degrees away from some blind sheikh uses the word jihad.

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D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
7/15/2013 | 5:42:18 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I'm with you, Coverlet, on many people getting excessively worked up about Prism. They see only black and white in a world full of gray. I do have a different take on the underlying technology. Here's my column on NSA's Accumulo system: http://ubm.io/12jwDfh
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
7/15/2013 | 5:54:44 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I agree in part. I agree that government needs better analytics tools and I'm definitely concerned that the feds buy closed source systems that they have to pay the original vendor to maintain for them, when they're probably the only customer (it's one thing to license a closed source word processing program; quite another to license software designed to identify terrorists). The feds would have never tolerated this 30 years ago, and probably do so now because some lobbyist was able to talk Congress into making them.

The questions that continue to disturb me are when should private businesses (or other organizations) be required to hand over records to the police or other government agencies, and what sorts of record keeping (over and above those required for internal purposes or tax assessment) should such organizations be required to perform. A requirement that phone companies hand over all of their call records on an continuing basis looks a lot to me like a general search and it probably would have seemed much the same to James Madison (the author of the Fourth Amendment). And even if we allow it, where do we draw the line between that and having every retail establishment in the country keep detailed customer records so they can be handed over to law enforcement in hopes that they can use them to build a super model to predict who is and is not a criminal?

And no, Edward Snowden doesn't strike me as being that heroic either, but like Julian Assange, it looks like he's picked his own prison.
zman58
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zman58,
User Rank: Strategist
7/15/2013 | 5:57:41 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
The perfect world. No moral dilemmas. Data collected and gathered for a single perfect reason in a single perfect way. All so easy and convenient for law enforcement. All good on that, but consider:

Data collected for a good cause does not always get used that way. The very information the "government" is not interested in, may be a treasure trove for another person or organization who may somehow get access to the information.

The people who collect, analyze, oversee, and store this information are only human. They can fall victim to vices, threats, collusion, temptation for illegal personal gain, just like others do. Access to data can be breached, bought, or leveraged for other purposes--it happens all the time.

Having this valuable broad data set available is a problem because it creates a liability for everyone who's data it contains--basically everyone that uses technology--all of us. There are no assurances anyone can make about the data falling into the wrong hands, or being used for immoral, criminal, or other devious behavior in the future. This is why it should not be collected, en mass, and maintained as it currently is. It is clearly wrong to do so.

So yes, dismantle it and instead work to make sure others can't collect it. Make the networks secure, not insecure. If you need to collect information on someone who is likely up to something illegal, then get a valid legal warrant, and focus on them and their information--and yes, do use the best technology for that purpose.
MarkPorter
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MarkPorter,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/15/2013 | 6:02:44 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
What I get worked up about is that Prism and it's ilk are done as black projects with little or no oversight. And, as we've recently learned, the definitions used to define and control the activity of these projects, get expanded, again without oversight. By all means, let's have the systems in place to collect, analyze and direct action. But this needs to be publicly acknowledged, funded and open to debate. Sure, that may impair the effectiveness of some of these activities, but, as far as I'm aware, living in a democracy brings with it similar impairments...but I, for one, am unwilling to cede that effectiveness in the name of security. And yes, easy for me to say, until the next successful terrorist strike, but, lacking this, what sort of a state have we created?
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/15/2013 | 8:21:28 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Doug- Nice piece. I obviously don't have inside information on the NSA's system. The way I describe it is how I'd architect it. The access control pieces that you mention are particularly interesting because they're the gray "safeguards" that start to build civil liberties into the analytics core.
rman23
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rman23,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/15/2013 | 8:23:19 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Talk about missing the real issue. So the only problem with our government
collecting private information on persons not suspected of a crime is that they
arenGÇÖt using the best tools? What about the 4th Amendment? Does anyone actually read history anymore? General Warrants always lead to tyranny thatGÇÖs why they added the 4th Amendment. Rationalizing that things are different now because we have more technology is just plan ignorant.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/15/2013 | 8:40:19 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Agreed Mark. There is a misguided notion that awareness of the system allows the bad actors to avoid it... so we should keep it secret. The reality is that those more sophisticated actors are what intelligence agencies call the dogs that don't bark-- they'll stay under the radar with or without awareness. Good analysis tracks them indirectly-- not by what they do themselves but by what their social network does. There is always a weak link in the (social) chain. That's the real value of an inference engine.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/15/2013 | 8:57:57 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
That's what I forgot to do-- read history.

I'm sure that once I do, I'll understand that "general warrants always lead to tyranny." I love anything that "always" leads to tyranny. It's so neat and predictable. Doesn't need a tool.

If I do end up reading history at some point-- like when I finally turn off the internets-- let's hope that I get a better understanding of how our historical context should help refine our collective understanding of civil liberties.

It's not like the constitution was ever "amended" to account for things being different than when it was first written.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
7/15/2013 | 10:52:22 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
My reading of history says that the Fourth Amendment, and similar prohibitions in contemporary state constitutions were enacted mostly in response to the British use of general searches to catch smugglers. If the Fourth Amendment means nothing else, then at the very least, general searches are unconstitutional on their face. If there is a valid reason to conduct general searches, then the Constitution should be amended accordingly (the real way).
walkfish55
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walkfish55,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/15/2013 | 11:15:19 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
In 1975 I was questioned by the FBI because I had dated someone who lived with someone who was suspected of conspiring to bomb something. No PRISM that time, just good investigative footwork. The agents were very polite and just wanted to know if I had seen the guy. But It gave me pause. The government is watching me, even though I am "irrelevant."
You can't ammend the broad concept of search and seizure without a warrant.No matter how inconvenient, it protects our liberties, and the concept is not made irrelevant by technology. So our challenge is to use the power of the turducken of data without violating what makes us a free society.
I agree that private companies with too much access to data could pose a great threat to our security.
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