NSA and the tip of the Iceberg

By on June 20th, 2013 in Ethics, Privacy & Security, Societal Impact, Topics

So how can we touch on the social implications of technology and not address the news related to the U.S. NSA?  First, let me welcome my colleagues at NSA to our Blog.  This follows a tradition we started when I was in a multinational  group at Digital Equipment when we welcomed our NSA colleagues to our discussion.  Those were international, SSIT is international, this Blog is public, and I hope international as well. So, at least one country has folks “monitoring” our discussion.

Monitoring is a curious word, and one where technology plays a big role. I have a brother-in-law who flew a parallel path to U-2 planes that were picking up signals from inside “enemy” areas, passing them to his plane “outside” enemy territory where he did real time translation to see if there were interesting things happening.  This is an expensive proposition. While technology has expanded massively the amount of communications, it has also provided tools to capture information about these, store it, and analyse it.  In today’s world it is possible to scan discussions in multiple languages, text or voice and watch for key words.  These can then be used for deeper analysis, and if warranted, engage humans to do even more detailed evaluation.

A second form of analysis is based on “traffic”.  A classic example is trying to decode the “Coke” formula by logging the delivery of various components to the Coke factory.  In theory, if you could log the amounts of each thing going in, you would eventually be able to figure out the recipe.  A similar approach can be used tracking say phone messages.  Without knowing  the actual “content”, if I know the calling number, number called, time and duration I can start to build traffic models. Ultimately this depends on knowing something about some numbers, such as this source is suspect.  Then building model of the network connecting to and from that number can show patterns.  This can be confirmed by playing back history records now that you have a confirmed ‘interesting’ number.  A similar concept to the way IBM taught Watson, and Deep Blue to play human games can be used to evaluate bad-guy games.  Once you sort out the patterns that differentiate a pot-luck dinner, a pot-dealer and a terrorist event you can automate the search, and focus on the interactions of interest.

What technology does is significantly  expand the ability to analyze and correlate information. Storing information about billions of phone calls, emails, tweets, blogs (hi again), social media posts, etc. has become possible.  Similarly it is now possible to cross-connect those streams — your tweets to your phone calls, etc.  More sophisticated models emerging from more complex data.  AI techniques, such as genetic algorithms, should be able to surface results with methods that humans might not even understand. (Patents for genetic algorithm creations have been filed.)

So we should not be surprised at the increased level of tracking, correlation, and potential intervention resulting from our on-line footprints. The same tools that make Google search work, or NetFlix recommendations relevant can be, and probably are being applied to monitoring our web trails for government “security” purposes; and not just by NSA.

There is an assumption that no weapon has been created that has not been used in warfare (eventually).  Similarly it is quite possible that technology developed for ‘good purposes’ eventually gets used for bad purposes.  If the NSA (and their peers), are currently only using the information they collect for improved security today; might they start using it to select out the targets for the next pogrom tomorrow.

There is a real dilemma of technology here. An algorithm or device created for improved search, or generating bitcoins may find applications by organizations like the NSA.  And the direction given such an organization in today’s world, may change tomorrow as the winds of politics blow.  There will be unintended, and probably undesirable consequences.

What concerns do you see from the broader picture?