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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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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
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.
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.
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?
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
7/17/2013 | 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 | 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.
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.
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.
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.
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