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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.

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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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/16/2013 | 7:41:03 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Your assertion that Prism doesn't scare you would be more credible if you weren't writing under a pseudonym.

Analytics matter if you have terrorist buy-in. But I'd bet they're not giving up much these days using phones or the Internet. While intelligence agencies would benefit from better needle-in-haystack software, I would rather see investment in the development of human intelligence assets, not to mention improvements in internal security procedures.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
7/16/2013 | 5:10:39 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Everyone seems to be worked up because the government owns the system. I just read a book called Exploding the Phone during a recent vacation, which explores the origin of phone hacking. Back in the 1950's and 1960's, Ma Bell (the then monopoly) was so concerned about the hacking they deployed a system they called GreenStar to attempt to catch and stop them. That system not only recorded the call information but actually recorded minutes of the phone conversation itself.
The government (FBI) was very happy to discover this during it's battle with illegal bookmaking. The bookies loved these hacking boxes which gave them free phone calls and even hid the call origin and destination. The FBI quickly got cozy with AT&T to get this information when they felt it would help them build a case.
Now it's just a much more high tech system targeting terrorists instead of phone phreaks. Interestingly, they darn near gathered up Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs with GreenStar. Long before Apple, Wozniak was one of the early phreaks and built hacking boxes he sold to people. AT&T caught many of their customers, just never were able to trace back to those two or we may not have an Apple company today.
I'll leave to all of you to decide if what AT&T did was right or wrong. I see no difference in what NSA doing with Prism, just more outrage because it's the government doing it.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
7/16/2013 | 12:35:26 AM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I loathe the fence builders and fear mongers, but it is inevitable that another attack is coming and our own common sense should dictate that we be vigilant. It will be hard for a vigilant system not to end up being be misused, and Coverlet probably glosses over part of that danger. But if such a system is audit-able, it will also be able to be made accountable -- more accountable than the typical government security agency. That's possibly too easy to say -- made accountable. Inevitably, humans involved will find ways of disrupting accountability. But we need to understand, up and down the ranks of society, that we are attempting to apply technology in way that guards the parapets without giving away the keys to our private homes' front doors..If enough knowledgeable people are watching, deviations from the core mission will be noted, hopefully, debated..Coverlet is on the right track. There is no completely assured answer but we must try to build such a system. Charlie Babcock, editor at large, InformationWeek
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 | 8:21:28 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.
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?
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