Getting to Know Our Numerical Selves

What the leak of the U.S. government’s surveillance program reveals about the power of Big Data — and how to limit it.

By Paul Ford


A very large Internet company once had the noble impulse to share some of its data with the research community. It made three months of log files from its search service available to all. The company took many steps to preserve privacy, removing personal information and randomizing ID numbers in the belief that this would make it impossible to identify any of the more than 650,000 customers who’d used the service. But Internet hobbyists, professional researchers, and journalists were able to ferret out many of the users. No. 4417749, for example, was a Georgia widow. Another user appeared to be planning a murder. Today, the AOL Search Log Scandal is remembered as one of the weirdest missteps in Internet history.

That took place an epoch ago, way back in 2006. Now anyone with a few dollars and a knack for computers can rent some cloud capacity and set up a stack of totally free technologies to deal with enormous amounts of data. Managing this data is a key part of functioning as a large Internet company. If you’re the intelligence apparatus of a global superpower, and your job is to keep an eye on people who are contemplating terrible acts, this data is incredibly valuable. You’re going to do what you can to get your hands on it. Once you do, you can employ beautiful, supple pieces of software — some with point-and-click interfaces and little icons — to help you understand what you’re seeing. It’s powerful stuff.

That’s essentially what’s been going on. From a series of leaks to the Guardian newspaper we’ve learned that Verizon turns over logs of all its calls — the numbers, locations, and other “metadata,” but not audio from calls themselves — to the National Security Agency every day. Thanks to a 29-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton consultant named Edward Snowden, we also learned of a program called Prism. The details are uncertain: At first it seemed that companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft had given the NSA open access to all of their user information. Now it seems that these companies are merely streamlining the way that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests work, setting up a secured drop-point service for the NSA to use. Of course, this implies that there are so many requests that a special expediting system is needed — and since we don’t know how much data is being shared, nor which is domestic or international, the leak about the NSA program has become a global sensation (page 30).

Public debate about how to strike a balance between security and liberty in the age of global terrorism and Big Data is long overdue. And despite the insistence of the country’s elected leaders that the NSA’s activities pose no threat to law-abiding citizens, we can’t merely shrug off the details. The total absorption of our telecommunications system into the national security apparatus should give all of us pause. But it shouldn’t be shocking. That’s because the vast digital trove of secrets amassed by the government isn’t a secret.

Amid all the fury over the Snowden leak, it’s easy to forget that when asked in a March 12 hearing if the NSA collects “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said, “No sir, not wittingly.” Later, on NBC, Clapper offered this explanation: “What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library.” Collecting data, he said, “would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up, and reading it.”

In other words, the NSA is building a giant card catalog of human beings, many of whom are Americans. They’re not actually collecting their conversations, or the people themselves, but all the data about their conversations — not the data but the metadata.

It’s entirely possible that Clapper believes he has drawn a sensible ethical line here. Yet as that AOL case in 2006 made clear, metadata can be revealing. Search histories or call logs like those the NSA ingests and presumably stores are hardly the same as Dewey Decimal numbers. They’re more like the index in the back of a book. What the NSA seems to be doing is treating hundreds of millions of people like open books and indexing them: Who are they, who do they know, where have they been, and so forth.

Data that’s well-defined and cleanly organized can be connected to whole other swaths of data. So once you build big organized indexes of human beings — one of their search terms, one of their phone calls, for example — you can merge them into one mega-index. And you can combine that mega-index with other mega-indexes. There’s enormous power in linking things. Google famously got its start by judging the way one page connected to another on the Web. Facebook has its “social graph” of interconnected people and organizations. Person A connects to person B, and by inference to all of person B’s friends, too.

This capability is so powerful and compelling that it gets hard not to link things. That a midlevel external consultant such as Snowden could have access to so many poorly designed PowerPoint slides doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that the NSA is bad at keeping secrets. It could imply that these programs are so typical inside the organization that they’re almost taken for granted. Perhaps people like Director Clapper really do believe, or have chosen to believe, that building a huge index to the invisible library of humanity is essentially a clerical act that doesn’t fall under the same moral category as surveillance. He might argue that a program like Prism doesn’t involve digging up secrets so much as combining ways of seeing the world.

But there’s a weird side effect for the rest of us. We are not just ourselves anymore. Each one of us has a new, statistical self living in databases around the world. It’s those selves, uniquely identified bundles of behavior, that marketers target and companies try to reach. These are remarkable, distributed portraits of what we read, what we eat, and where we sleep. When it comes to our statistical selves, the difference between the NSA and private companies such as Facebook or Google or lies in what the government can do with the data it collects. It’s building that giant index so that, if it needs to, it can actively cross the line between your statistical self and your real, physical self. It’s the difference between “would you like to receive local coupons for businesses you love?” and “why is there a van in front of our house?”

Do we have a choice? Not much of one, not yet. It’s possible but very burdensome to encrypt all of your data and become less snoopable. Americans, according to polls, just don’t care that much about this sort of privacy. As long as the line between the statistical self and the real self isn’t crossed, why worry? Full participation in modern culture, one could argue, requires us to continually leave these data trails, to build these other selves, all bound to be indexed inside the NSA’s secret empire at Fort Meade, Md.

Will that change, now that the extent of surveillance has been revealed? It’s hard to imagine the president doing much, since the executive branch has become an executive dashboard: a world of online petitions and spreadsheets and briefings produced from the very data under discussion. The legislature could act, but no one ever went broke underestimating the technical savvy of the U.S. Congress.

There are, however, some basic questions an informed citizenry can and should ask. Where is this data being collected? Where does it come from? How long is it stored? Which databases are linked? And another one: Can I see? To its credit, the NSA does allow you to request your own file and see the information it has on record. You can mail the request to Fort Meade, fax it, or e-mail it (with a special digital signature). It takes a while to process; obviously the NSA would prefer not to share this information with you. The irony is that the NSA is very likely the organization that best understands the digital self-portraits we’ve painted over the Internet years. Searching for terrorists, it’s built an unbelievably large index of human events.

As the conversation unfolds, it’s likely that the media will focus on individuals: Edward Snowden and his motives, or the terrorists caught out. But don’t forget all of that data, all those captured moments. We deserve to know this database’s shape and how it protects us. As the weeks go on and people in power talk about needles, keep your eye on the haystack.

Ford is a writer and programmer in New York.


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