Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Intelligence agencies need our help, not our scorn - Part 2

It might seem like the process of PRISM is entirely too vast and too invasive for a democratic society. Surely it should be stopped before the Hobbes’ Leviathan gobbles everything under its mighty shadow. But flowery language aside, the mere fact the NSA created a tool like PRISM underscores just how reliant we’ve become on the internet as more than just a tool, but a way of life. 

Particular generations are more likely to interact with the internet on an immersive scale than others, but almost every citizen in the United States and other Western countries use the tool daily. For some people, every detail of their digital life sits vulnerably on servers located in cool rooms of cities and towns with names they probably couldn’t pronounce. 

This is why people in the United States are in various stages of anger at what Mr Snowden revealed about NSA over the weekend. Even in New Zealand, when news of this country’s equivalent signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency - the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) - were shown to also be spying on New Zealanders, the reaction was very similar to the current feeling in America. 

It’s not that people are angry at the United States government or the New Zealand parliament for letting the spy agencies run amok and become “too powerful”. The citizens know the data those agencies are gathering are private and potentially confidential.

Hidden among the outrage is a psychological pattern which needs to be addressed. Mr Snowden talks in his interview about the threat of governments using the information they gather to indict the average, law-abiding citizen with arbitrary convictions and crimes. 

He points out that too much power can mean any individual is watched constantly while all information is stored indefinitely. And if they should ever step out of line, the government can bring out their fat folder of misdeeds to deliver a hammer blow to an otherwise gentle person’s freedom. What stands out in this way of thinking is a manifestation of narcissism which has insidiously latched itself to modern Western society.

To think that a powerful intelligence agency like the NSA is vacuuming every available piece of internet paraphernalia, analysing that information, and storing it in vast warehouses for effective eternity, just so they can build a criminal profile against you on the off chance that you become a suspected “enemy of the state”, or even just to capriciously target you, is Class A vanity. 

The NSA, in all its glory, is nowhere near capable of keeping track of 300 million Americans (and growing); let alone 7 billion human beings. The amount of data cascading into the storage banks in Bluffdale and Virginia from wiretaps already in place before PRISM, is too great to sort out into neat little boxes with human names.

The American and New Zealand SIGINT agencies do not care about the average citizen. The last thing an analyst needs is a false lead when they are on the clock racing to uncover real plots to kill their fellow citizens. 

The very reason programs like PRISM exist is because these plots are often fleshed out, communicated, and conducted using the tool of the internet. Terrorists and criminals are savvy to the power of technology, just like the average citizen.

The problem for an intelligence agency is the difficulty of spotting the patterns in the galaxy of meaningless noise. That noise is an email to your wife, telling her you’ll be late home from work. It’s the funny cat picture you clicked on while browsing on a lunch break. It’s the Facebook post you wrote complaining about the air conditioning in the cafĂ©. Sure, these digital footprints now sit on an NSA server bank somewhere, but the analysts don’t care. What they’re looking for is far more important than the red light you just sped through or the tax return you filed slightly misleadingly.

NSA analysts are pulling all the data they can get their greedy hands on because it heightens their chances for spotting a threat or a pattern amongst the noise. 

If the bags of rubbish pulled from the tip are full of useless scraps with only a snippet of useful information, doesn’t retaining the rubbish bag make sense for a policeman if he’s looking for a killer? Will the policeman care about the rest of the rubbish once the snippet of information has been gleaned and added to the pattern? 

In the same way your emails about football practice mean nothing to the analyst searching for the fragments of words between terrorists, the policeman cares not a jot about the scrunched chocolate wrapper next to the rotting apple core.

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