First POST: Starting Somewhere
BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, June 11 2013
"You have to start somewhere"
In a weekend interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said tracking the phone conversations of millions of Americans — with whom they were speaking and for how long — was just a "start."
Ms. Mitchell: Why do you need every telephone number? Why is it such a broad vacuum cleaner approach?
Director Clapper: Well, you have to start someplace. If and over the years this program has operated we have refined it and tried to make it ever more precise and more disciplined as to which things we take out of the library. But you have to be in the chamber in order to be able to pick and choose those things that we need in the interest of protecting the country, and gleaning information on terrorists who are plotting to kill Americans, to destroy our economy, and destroy our way of life.
This was the same interview in which Clapper said he responded to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during a congressional hearing last year in the "least untruthful manner possible." Wyden asked if the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans and Clapper said no.
If that's just where state surveillance starts, then where does it stop?
The Hill reports: "The White House held 22 Hill briefings over 14 months on the law that national security officials cite in defending a secret surveillance program that collects information from Internet use and telephone calls, according to a senior administration official."
As more detail emerges, the first thesis to test seems to be whether intelligence officials said as little as possible — both in the open and behind closed doors — about a complex technological system in a novel legal framework and lawmakers, unwilling to question the national security apparatus, didn't look too close.
Metadata is not innocuous: One defense of phone monitoring the administration has proffered is that officials were only tracking "metadata" and not the content of calls. But that data, when there's enough of it, can be as revealing as call content itself. Kieran Healy, assistant professor of sociology at Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, demonstrates by applying techniques of social network analysis — a quantitative discipline, now decades old, for analyzing patterns in relationships such as group membership — to a list of 254 prominent American characters at the start of the Revolutionary War. In "Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere," he shows that just mapping the relationships and affiliations of a relatively small group including Revere would identify him as a likely revolutionary.
The implication is that the same is true for massive lists of who in this country is calling whom and for how long — including inferences about many innocent people.
Similar concerns exist about at least nominally "anonymized" data used by medical researchers. While personally identifiable information is cleaned from these datasets, reasonably skilled statisticians can recombine enough data to start making educated guesses about what name goes with what medical data. Protecting the anonymity of study participants is an ongoing focus of scientific ethics.
In other words, even analyzing "metadata" alone is problematic for privacy reasons.
In spite of the uproar around WikLeaks and a new age of electronic drop boxes, there has never been a shortage of whistles; what has been in short supply is people to blow them. In this instance, the Web is not just a repository of leaked material, but a means of changing the dynamics of the debate into a two-way affair in which the public has access to the leaker. The administration, in both its public remarks and its investigations into leaks, has tried to portray those who leak as marginal people with nefarious motivations. By using the Web and speaking on his own behalf, Mr. Snowden is not allowing himself to be defined by the government.
In Europe, officials have a strong negative reaction to American surveillance.
Around the web
GovTech talks with U.S. CIO Steve VanRoekel about the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
Jason Hibbets proposes five characteristics of an open source city.
The Sunlight Foundation is launching an OpenGov Grants program to offer small grants for open government projects.