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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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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
arenG«÷t using the best tools? What about the 4th Amendment? Does anyone actually read history anymore? General Warrants always lead to tyranny thatG«÷s 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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