Big Data // Big Data Analytics
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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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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.
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.
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
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