The government and data

Lots of good and thought-provoking responses to yesterday’s post on the NSA Surveillance.  I cannot say I disagree with most of the arguments, yet…  I think in the end, I realize that there is definitely a huge opportunity for the government to mis-use this data, but at the moment there’s not actually any evidence that they are doing so.  There’s huge opportunity for prosecutors to abuse their discretion.  And they do it every day.  But I don’t see us agitating to take away prosecutorial discretion (and honestly, some significantly greater checks would surely be a good thing).

Some commentary I heard spoke to the “resignation” of Americans towards the modern surveillance state and I know that resignation speaks substantially to my own view.  When cell phone plans I looked into three months ago (went with buying an Iphone for Straight Talk– super happy with the phone and the service) are still tracing me all over the internet, I’m largely resigned to a lack of privacy on some level.  Furthermore, the idea that the government has the data of whom I called and when, doesn’t really bother me all that much.  What would bother me is if the government used this data against me without probable cause to do so.  I haven’t seen any evidence the government has been doing that to people.  That, would get me up in arms.  One of the most interesting metaphors I heard is that if government is going to be looking for needles (terrorists, presumably) in a haystack, it needs the haystack (all of our phone records).  So long as that’s what’s going on and its not using the haystack to randomly peer in and search for crimes without judicial oversight, this actually strikes me as reasonable.

Nice post in Pacific Standard from Seth Masket talking about this approach:

You can see that most of the contacts are people I speak to only once or twice [Seth posted a network map of his actual calling pattern]. The highlighted (more frequent) connections are my wife, my parents, my brother, a colleague, my kids’ elementary school, and a guy who was doing some contract work at my house. Let’s just assume that’s a typical phone data pattern for a guy in my demographic profile who’s not a terrorist. (You’ll have to take my word for this.)

Now, if you were able to download the phone usage data for all the nodes depicted above and graph them, you’d have a pretty complex network diagram. It would show some small, dense networks (families, groups of friends) and some loosely-affiliated people who have their own connections. Now download the phone usage data for all ofthose nodes, and imagine the patterns it would show. Now imagine if you could do that for basically every cell phone subscriber in the country.

That’s a huge amount of data, and depicting it graphically would pretty much be a waste of ink. Profiles like mine would quickly disappear into background noise. But computers can look for people who rise above the noise. Perhaps someone seems to belong to no local networks but just pops up to make a few phone calls that last less than a minute. Perhaps those calls occur within 24 hours of a bombing attack, or right after an al Qaeda speech is broadcast. Well, that’s hardly proof of criminal activity, but it might be enough for investigators to seek a warrant for a wiretap or some other form of surveillance to learn more about the person making the calls.

And, just so y’all don’t think I’ve gone Dick Cheney, I do appreciate the arguments you are making and think the concerns are very legitimate.  Just from my understanding at this point, I don’t think we’ve seen the evidence of government abuse of this data that we could all agree would be highly problematic.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

6 Responses to The government and data

  1. Mark says:

    Abuse isn’t the point. They are already abusing their authority by collecting all these data in the first place. It is absolutely not reasonable for them to collect phone records and internet data for basically anyone and everyone they’re able to.

    It’s one thing to have secret surveillance. That has existed for decades, and there were legal safeguards for the scope. It’s another to have totally unchecked monitoring of literally everything I and other people do online and all our phone records. There’s no reason for such a wide scope. It’s inefficient, unweildy, and unnecessarily intrusive.

  2. Doxy says:

    I don’t think we’ve seen the evidence of government abuse of this data that we could all agree would be highly problematic.

    If I had any confidence that we would be ALLOWED to see evidence of abuse, I *might* agree with you. But a secret “Star Chamber” court that hears requests without any rebuttal and issues opinions that no one is allowed to read….well, what could POSSIBLY go wrong?!

    Actually…I still wouldn’t agree with you, for the reasons Mark just gave.

  3. itchy says:

    It’s laughable that Obama says he’s “happy to have a dialog” about balancing privacy and national security. That’s getting caught and then asking for permission. Where was he two weeks ago?

    That’s the problem I have. Two weeks ago, there was no evidence of government surveillance of all phone records. That didn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

    I absolutely don’t go in for conspiracy theories, but I can’t imagine an organization as large as NSA (along with the many others who have access to this information) not having people who would abuse it. And I can’t imagine that practice not eventually sliding down the slope where some people inside consider themselves privileged to do what they wish with the information. And I cannot imagine others with political motivation not pressing to get access to that information. It all starts with small indiscretions, and then, once those become acceptable, the indiscretions become larger.

    When has the FBI or the CIA *not* overstepped its authority? Is there any reason the NSA would be different?

    Personally, my phone records, like Masket’s, would provide a snoozefest for anyone wanting to go through them. But what Masket misses is that, once that data is collected, targeting me or Masket — or a political rival — is dead simple.

      • itchy says:

        And David Simon of The Wire disagrees with me.

        Eloquent, as always, but I disagree with him for a few reasons. Police in the ’90s collecting data about pay phone traffic were collecting only data specific to one or a few phones, not all behavior by every caller. And I’m guessing that data wasn’t preserved beyond a trial.

        What the NSA is doing is orders of magnitude larger. They can retroactively construct anyone’s entire call history, and they can do it forever. Of course, that’s what makes it so powerful a tool, but it also allows anyone with access to do it at any time.

        Again, I hate to sound like a conspiracy-monger, but my guess is, they also collect the location of our cell phones, all our emails, etc. And they keep it forever.

        It’s not that they’re targeting any non-terrorists right now. It’s that any rogue person with access *can* target anyone at any time later. And it’s all done in secret. We wouldn’t even know if misuse had occurred.

  4. Mike from Canada says:

    Up here in British Columbia, Canada, we have government run medical care. Our medical records and entire pharmacy records are computerized. This is done for ease of access, control of costs and fraud and control of restricted pharmaceuticals. I can be admitted into any hospital in BC and have my healthcare records available to the physicians.

    Although these systems allow for significant savings in time and a reduction in pill mills, there is the problem of people accessing the information without authorization.

    A number of employee’s have been fired for accessing information that was not authorized, including a research team, BC Ministry of Health officers and an employee at a regional hospital system.

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