Thursday, June 06, 2013

Looking over your shoulder

Mr. Pierce's post about the Verizon-NSA collaboration makes some interesting points, but I'd like to bring up a couple more.  I'd have left this as a comment but someone mentioned something a while ago about how my comments often look more like blog posts, so here we are.

First, I think the Verizon-NSA collaboration is nowhere as interesting as the AT&T-NSA collaboration, which had far more musicality and really changed the genre.  I just think AT&T is cuter, too, and there's much more of a summertime feel to the joint, whereas the Verizon-NSA thing is pretty contrived, like Bruno Mars working with JLo.

But second, I know a little bit about this because I do something very similar to the NSA, only on an smaller scale and in the private sector.  And if you woke up the Founders in their collective bed and put a collective gun to their collective head, they would say this is exactly what the 4th amendment is designed to prevent.  And then they'd go collectively login to Facebook and look for their high school crush.

Because there's three issues here.  There's what I'll call the Tuttle/Buttle issue.  We've all seen Brazil.  We all know the story.  But there's not a lot of evidence all this vacuuming of bits actually does anything useful.  Large-scale ECHELON-style keyword searches or graph-collection algorithms are the Osprey VTOL or $900 hammer of the surveillance state: They look pretty and clearly someone thinks they're important, but are they any better at finding and capturing perpetrators than a beat cop who knows his/her neighborhood?  So while its worrisome that They've got all this data, its not the systematic repression we should worry about, its the stupid mistakes.

If you think these tools are effective at detecting crime, ask yourself: when was the last time you clicked on a Facebook recommendation that didn't come from one of your friends?  When was the last time you ordered something Amazon recommended?  That's the private sector, and if I recall my American politics correctly, they're way way more effective than the public sector.  If they can't figure out the links, how's a poor civil servant to do so?

There's what I'll call the Space Shuttle issue, which is that this technology is always commercialized and turned over to the private sector.  ("Spinoffs" they used to be called; pre-Bush pere they sometimes called them "peace dividends.")  I've looked at multiple job opportunities in the last two years for companies that wanted to build systems that would provide Amazon-style recommendations at the point of checkout.  So if you think advertising is invasive now, just imagine a computerized voice in the checkout line at the grocery store saying "you missed our sale on condoms and lube!  And you have no gin; 20% off this week only!"  Needless to say you can pretty much build it, but will they come, and no one seems to have thought past the creepiness of the ubiquitous uninvited pitch.  The difference between what the NSA thinks it can do and what these companies think they can do is purely a matter of which product you're selling.

And third there's the Facebook issue.  We've all logged into Charlie's blog with Facebook accounts, which didn't even exist ten years ago.  We can worry all we want about the national security state having all of our information, but they don't need it because they've got Facebook.  All this edge-detection has been outsourced anyway, and we've given everyone but the government access to all of our phone records already.  I mean, Verizon already has all this stuff; they're as likely to commit Buttle/Tuttle mistakes as anyone.  Not the same scale, obviously, or not yet.

This horse, though, has wandered way down the road and is currently wrapped in the fence in the neighbor's yard.  Perhaps we should close the barn door - or to mix metaphors, the lid on Pandora's box - to make sure nothing else gets out.  But I don't see anyone doing much but buying more fence wire.

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