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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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Dr3wR1ck
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Dr3wR1ck,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/25/2013 | 4:28:57 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
"The people working at the NSA don't care about your dumb life or your stupid fetish. ... They care about stopping bad guys. And quickly."

The author is (willfully?) naive. This data can be used to undercut economic competition (by just enough that the preferred company gets the contract), to suppress political dissenters, and to keep undesired individuals from attaining positions of power.

Just because most of us aren't important enough to get this data used against us doesn't mean it is never used against anyone.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/19/2013 | 5:21:01 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
The technology in question isn't particularly sophisticated right now. The column was meant to question the commonly-held fallacy that a system (any system) can figure out who's a terrorist. It can't. The best it can do with today's state-of-the-art is to narrow the research that a limited resource pool (intelligence or law enforcement) needs to drill down on. And yes, civil liberties come into play. And now that its in the open, we-- the architects and hackers-- should figure out how to help AND respect civil liberties.
Tim
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Tim,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/19/2013 | 11:43:27 AM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Did you vote for it? No? Then there is a problem.

Of course saying `I'm not special' is the ultimate naivety, right up there with ostriches and sand - it doesn't stop the fact that there will be false positives as well as false negatives.
Tim
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Tim,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/19/2013 | 11:41:03 AM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
The greater the apparent separation between how government acts and what people what/hope/expect/vote for, the more such outrage is justified.
Tim
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Tim,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/19/2013 | 11:36:18 AM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
An intriguing article, and certainly asking important questions.

The one thing I find questionable is "the craptastic tools that we hand to our police and intelligence communities.". For the most part, we don't hand them anything. I worked as a linux consultant around 2000-2002 and would dearly have loved to have slapped some people in the NHS into seeing the advantages of open-source and standards-based solutions - notably, the people being decision-makers and bureaucrats who make choices based on the mythical `bottom line' with insufficient regard to best practices. I see the police as no different in terms of interfacing IT with society. If their tools are clumsy and thuggish, it's because they've chosen them, not that we've handed them - *none* our so-called "elected representatives" are interested in living up to that moniker. Why would a secret service suddenly start believing in openness and transparency?

Much as I'd like to focus on sharpening the tools for geekish reasons, aside from getting the authorities interested, there are problems with that approach too: in the interests of avoiding bad statistics, it's impossible to build a graph of communications relationships that doesn't sniff other people's data: if you're analyzing whether T2 is a terrorist because she talks to T1 then you have to consider how many non-terrorist communicants she also has, to decide whether their communication is significant or if she's reasonably well-balanced (talks with other friends on the same network equally, and is only sharing cookie recipes with T1). And that's where the whole civil liberties thing comes in.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/18/2013 | 4:59:25 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I think the "you are not special" point is valid, but that it also glosses over some of the things that make PRISM troubling. Statistically, the likelihood that the NSA is specifically targeting an InformationWeek reader is pretty low. But for the average citizen to say, "I'm not special because the government is too busy chasing bad guys" presumes that a) the government is good at differentiating good guys and bad guys, and b) that the government defines "bad" the way the rest of us do. In the current administration, maybe these assumptions are valid. But government agencies haven't always draw the right line between radical rhetoric and legitimate extremism (examples range from the targeting of Black Panthers decades ago, to whether DHS had any business monitoring Occupy protestors, to the current debate over whistle-blowing vs. national security). There's also the lack of oversight in a program like PRISM (e.g. a secret court that never says "no" isn't how most people would define "oversight"). I don't think something like PRISM is inherently wrong, per se, but even if we assume the government is only interested in "bad guys," such simple assumptions can still become messy in practice.
pwndecaf
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pwndecaf,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/17/2013 | 8:17:05 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
Nixon had an enemies list. What makes you think others in government don't follow that strategy? I get your point - I have spouted off on other forums about many government issues. I'm not sweating it. I just assume they are listening. So what? Nothing to be done about it.
As GW Bush would say, keep shopping! I hated him and Cheney - still do. Now Obama follows suit. I think that is why you don't want to start such things - these "rules" are impossible to take away after they have it. He just put "leaking" on a par with terrorism. Absurd.
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/17/2013 | 6:04:49 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
There will always be bad actors -- even in law enforcement. With or without Prism, those rogues can persecute the innocent. The potential abuse of power however does not negate the need for power. It just requires checks and balances.

What's wrong with our recent discovery (as a nation) isn't that the power exists but that there might not be sufficient controls around it to address abuse. The loudest voices (always) take the extreme positions. The answer is probably a balance in the middle.

As for Tom's point, I don't think that the thousands of editorialists who have already written anti-Prism pieces need to lose sleep about NSA persecution. I wouldn't.
pwndecaf
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pwndecaf,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/17/2013 | 5:03:12 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I think you just made ThomasClaburn's point. If you were anti-Prism, would you have something to fear?
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
7/16/2013 | 10:16:25 PM
re: Why Prism Is The Right Investment
I've been writing under a pseudonym since April. And I'm certainly not doing it out of fear of the government. Given this piece's pro-Prism, pro-law-enforcement position, I'm not sure what I would have to fear. Flowers from the NSA perhaps?
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