Whatever we might think of Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents detailing the NSA’s snooping on America’s - well, everyone’s - communications, at least we all now know what’s going on.
Sure, most of us on the coding side of the screen already knew the deal. I haven’t found a programmer who was surprised by the news that our emails, text messages, and phone calls are being logged and stored. If anything, most of them are surprised that the general public seems so shocked. What were people thinking? That Google just gives us services like Gmail for free? We pay for this stuff - not with cash, but with our data.
None of our data may be so interesting in itself, but when it’s combined with everyone else’s it reveals a whole lot of information about us. Using factor analysis and other statistical techniques, big data can identify members of a population who might be about to purchase a new car, trying to have a baby, or even about to change political affiliations. No logic is required; the people and machines analyzing big data sets don’t care about why one set of data points might indicate some other data point; they only care that it does.
As long as corporations from Facebook to Twitter are collecting and using this data, why shouldn’t government get in on the act? Instead of looking for potential car buyers or new mothers, however, government is looking for potential terrorists. Or at least that’s what they say. In reality, the sample size of known terrorists is so small that it’s essentially impossible to draw statistical conclusions about their data. The only way to know what they’re saying is to listen to what they’re saying. Luckily (or terrifyingly, depending on your perspective) voice calls can be scanned for keywords as easily as a text document. The conversation can then be parsed by humans to determine whether there’s a threat.
The big news here, if any, is that now this stuff is public knowledge. Most of my friends and colleagues knew about government surveillance of digital communications, already. Some former students had even told me about installing switches at cell phone companies to be used for government snooping. Others helped write the database architecture for facilities that store voicemail long after it has been “deleted” by its recipients. Most of them were relieved that the information they were afraid to leak themselves is finally out.
Moreover, the better you understand the programs and platforms you use - and the permanence of almost everything you do online - the better equipped you will be to choose what the data watchers know about you, and what they don’t.
May the digitally illiterate proceed at their own risk. Once again, you have been warned.