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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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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.
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
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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