The spies have it


Over the course of the last month, the National Security Agency has been involved in several major controversies involving possible domestic spying abuses.

Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian released a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court document, classified above Top Secret, which orders the cell phone company Verizon to produce data on every call originating in the United States. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Sprint and AT&T operate under similar order. Also, The Washington Post released a PowerPoint presentation that claims the NSA has electronic access to the systems of major technology companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook through an initiative named Prism about which several of the technology companies claim they know nothing.

I have heard it claimed on Facebook and in real life that this is a “young people” problem and that “young people” deserve this surveillance for sharing too much information. While there may be too much information being shared online, this is an issue that people of all ages and political persuasions should be following, though not for the reasons one might expect.

First and foremost, it should be pointed out this issue is a bipartisan one. Both Republicans and Democrats support digital surveillance. Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-California, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, cooperatively held a news conference in which they stated the FISA court order revealed was legal. In fact, many within the technology community do not doubt that these programs are legal. They began under President George W. Bush, supported by legislation such as the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and have continued to be supported by President Obama. In fact, our representatives Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, both Democrats, along with U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican voted for reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2012. This appears to be a rare point of ideological agreement in an age of increasingly divisive political rhetoric.

Both Republicans and Democrats also oppose digital surveillance. While Sens. Feinstein and Chambliss were trumpeting both the legality and necessity of the FISA court order, Senators Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, were separately leading the charge against government overreach. Paul announced intentions to sponsor anti-surveillance legislation while Wyden revealed a letter he wrote to the Department of Justice last year expressing serious concerns about the government’s interpretation of The Patriot Act. In fact, The Huffington Post, one of the biggest bastions of liberal ideology on the Internet, headlined an article critical of the current administration titled “George W. Obama” that included a composite image of both presidents.

Second despite claims of “big brother” being shouted from the rooftops the content of your conversations is likely not being examined by the government. I am not being an apologist here. To be frank, most of us aren’t interesting enough for that kind of detailed analysis. Instead, the government is concerned with something called meta-data, which is really data about data.

In this context, the government isn’t interested in the data being conveyed during your phone call or when you send an email. Rather, the government is interested in the data about the phone call or email such as the time the time of the call or the recipient of the email. Gathering this metadata doesn’t require targeting specific individuals, either. It is possible to gather large swaths of metadata at once. All it requires is accessing the logs which most technological systems keep for legitimate reasons such as backing systems up and security auditing.

One can do a surprising amount of complex mathematics with just metadata. My own current research uses metadata concerning bullying in schools to develop systems that support educators in information sharing and classroom management. Facebook uses metadata to inform advertising. In this case, the government is using metadata to develop a representation of how the average citizen behaves in digital environments so that they can look for suspicious behavior that is out of the ordinary. This is surprisingly simple to accomplish: the mathematics underlying such a system has existed for centuries and any undergraduate student with an overview course in artificial intelligence and a course in probability should be capable of working on such a system.

Third, there are many important “real life” consequences for this sort of digital surveillance. Discussions on the implications of digital surveillance to real-life surveillance are common. What is not being discussed is that digital privacy is influenced by technological literacy and experience, which tend to be more difficult skills for older persons to develop. This suggests that digital surveillance is more likely to include information about older persons and the elderly. This is not just a problem for the younger generation.

Lastly, and perhaps most disappointingly, this news is not news to most of the community of technology professionals or those who closely follow current events in technology. Individuals have been blowing the whistle on digital surveillance since 2005 when the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping policies were leaked. Virtually every year, a new case of “government overreach” in the digital surveillance arena is made public that causes new outrage. The government’s response is almost always the same. They claim that the programs are critical to the security of the country. They claim the program has been successful in preventing terrorist plots. They claim they aren’t spying on American citizens. And then they wait, because the public has a short memory. There is no reason to believe this time will be any different.

Digital surveillance is an issue that transcends the traditional and ever-growing wedge between Republicans and Democrats. This controversy can remind us that the issues can unite us as well as divide. It also can show us that surveillance impacts in ways that we don’t expect. Metadata is often as a valuable as data and the use of digital surveillance tools may disproportionately target those of advanced age.

Finally, the outrage being expressed about this controversy provides absolutely no hope that anything will change.

Robert Olson, M.S., is a visiting instructor in the Department of Computer & Informational Sciences at Fredonia State University.