Faster, Please!

The Information Revolution and the Snooping State

One of my favorite bits of wisdom about the modern world goes “the information revolution happened and the information won.” We’re drowning in information. We can read most any newspaper and watch most any TV program anywhere in the world at any hour of the day or night. We can find out what so and so thinks about most anything, and we can even check to see if he has changed his mind over the years.  We can also find out virtually anything we want to know about a person’s health, income, job, diet, religion, reading habits…whatever.  I’m not talking about the IRS or the NSA-acting-as-FBI-proxy;  these data are all over the place, from Utah to Canada to Googleland (don’t forget that “Google is Hal”). (h/t James Burt, who commented on the MIT Technology Review site).

The good news, so to speak, is that there is so much information, our abilities to sort it out are overwhelmed.  Paradoxically, we’ve probably got more to worry about from the Department of Education than from the National Security Agency.

We are rightly enraged to discover that the IRS snoops into the reading and prayer habits of Obama’s political opponents, and that the NSA-acting-as-FBI-proxy intercepts and stores all the phone calls and emails it can get its virtual claws on.  But it’s not just the national security agencies and the tax men that do this.  Companies trying to identify likely customers do it.  They also do it to real and potential competitors.  Hackers do it, sometimes for their own excitement, sometimes on commission.  And “educators” do it too, even to kindergarteners.

Snooping is rampant. Sometimes it’s super high-tech, sometimes it’s traditional.  Sometimes it’s good for us, as when terror plots are found and prevented, and when fraud is discovered and the criminals are punished.  Sometimes it’s bad for us, as when some wicked person, in or outside government, uses our once-private information to shake us down, or intimidate us.

Or ruin us.

No person can survive a detailed biographical inquiry.  We’ve all done things we shouldn’t, and we’ve failed to do things we should.  Those stories, especially if artfully presented, can destroy any candidate or public official.  That’s why public figures don’t want their lives–the whole of them–presented to the electorate.  And it’s why there’s a profession known as “opposition research,” which engages a considerable number of IT-savvy people who search relentlessly for damaging information about their actual and potential political opponents.  And it’s also why famous people, like the president, have taken extraordinary steps to conceal certain details of their lives.

It didn’t start that way, but inevitably, like so much of our world, it became politicized.  Modern snooping achieved lift-off velocity in two areas:  commerce and national security.  The private sector found there was money to be made in that pile of data.  Once they knew “who you were” (that is, what you would buy) they could target you with offers to buy things that you were really and truly interested in.  And the IT guys could sell this information to the marketing guys.  Everybody could make money.  It worked.  It was irresistible.

The State couldn’t very well stay out of that game;  indeed, they’d been playing for decades, albeit on a smaller field.  When I was in government in the 1980s, we snooped a lot, or so it seemed.  I got a lot of NSA material dealing with subjects of concern to my work, and we, usually in tandem with the FBI, would sometimes ask for wiretaps on (almost always) foreigners we believed were out to damage the nation.  Yes, there was a FISA  Court, and that court usually approved our requests (not always, however;  I remember one case that flabbergasted us when we were denied permission to tap the phones of a foreign “diplomat” from the Soviet bloc).  But they were specific requests concerning specific individuals.

With the information revolution, things changed in at least two ways.  First, the amount of “data” metastasized.   I was often amazed at NSA’s abilities (as when, before my time, they figured out a way to listen via satellite to the Soviet dictator’s car phone), but those capabilities now look like child’s play.  Now there’s all that stuff on Internet, and email, and cell phones.  Bad guys make calls and send emails and browse the Net, right?  Ergo, it’s in our interest to get on top of it all, and since Google has a monster storage facility for its data, we need an even bigger one for ours.  And so we get the enormous facility in Utah.

I’m not absolutely sure about what I’m about to say, but I have some smarter friends who tell me that the quantity of “information” is so vast, it’s unmanageable.  Like me, they have had good experiences with NSA, and respect its work as a general principle.  But it could well be that NSA fell in love with “big data,” and just assumed that they needed to have it all.  But they don’t.  They need specific data, having to do with specific problems, and it strikes my friends that there’s actually a danger of losing focus in the galaxy of data now being stored.  Most of it is probably useless for the government’s purposes–even if you assume the worst about its intentions–and the bigger that galaxy becomes, the harder it will be to locate and analyze the valuable stuff.

In short, this might well be one of those cases where a fabulous technology has been adopted, only to discover that it makes things worse, because it diverts money, analysts, and agencies from paying attention to real people.

Mind you, I’m not saying that NSA shouldn’t listen to phone calls or read emails to or from people who may be plotting to do evil things.  I’m just saying that having a list of all the phone numbers called by bin Laden or Zawahiri probably doesn’t get us useful information about their mafia.  The top terrorists change their phones with such frequency that records of calls are long since overtaken by events.  The ones who cling to  their “smart” phones are stupid.

Which is not to say I’m not worried about snoopers.  I am, big time.  I’m worried about the current practice of the FISA Court to approve requests for all data the government claims might be “relevant” to national security.  Its critics are calling it a “parallel Supreme Court” that only hears the government’s side of the request, and last year it approved all of the 1800 requests it received.  Nobody’s perfect, and that number tells me that oversight–the purpose of the court, after all–is insufficient.   It also suggests that the court is being entranced by the “big data” dream.

Oh, by the way, it isn’t only “big data” that is being gobbled up by the state;  snail mail is being targeted as well.  The government has greatly expanded its monitoring of envelopes and packages delivered by the postman.  My old buddy Angleton is undoubtedly having a few chuckles over that one, since he was purged from CIA in part because he was reading mail to Americans from bad guys overseas.

But I’m even more worried about the government’s obsession with keeping its own secrets.  Not just classified information, which is kosher, but things it would prefer we don’t know.

The president has unleashed a little-noted but truly scary “spy on your colleagues” campaign within the federal bureaucracy, calling on government workers to report suspicious behavior by their cohorts.  The mission is to identify potential leakers before they spill the beans on what our government is up to. This (classic McCarthyite) campaign is being applied to all manner of information, including stuff in the Agriculture Department and the Peace Corps, that is not remotely classified.

The thing is so ugly that civil servants have been warned that they may be singled out for punishment for failure to report suspicious behavior.

Civil service all of a sudden sounds scary.

And then there’s the “education” snoopers.  I started worrying early in the Obama first term when the government took over the student loan program, since it provides bureaucrats the ability to decide who gets college money, and who doesn’t.  The opportunities for political corruption are obvious:  if they like your parents, you get the money.  Otherwise, no deal.  The latest instrument for governmental control over our kids is the scheme to tailor education to each and every student’s personal “needs.”  If little Mohammed is having trouble with arithmetic, and is a big baseball fan, then his math homework would ask him about RBIs instead of boring numbers, for example.  To that end, a huge database is being assembled, containing all manner of information about students, starting with kindergarten.  That information inevitably includes lots of personal stuff about little Mohammed’s family:

Some of the student characteristics being discussed and coded are very sensitive, and their relevance to education is questionable at best. Those characteristics can include voting status, family income, religious affiliation, discipline problems, number of hours worked per weekend, medical laboratory procedure results, amount of non-school activity involvement and computer screen name.

This frightens me.  And while I do worry about the NSA’s data galaxy, I worry even more about Education’s snooping into the details of our kids’ lives.  For extras, I don’t like the notion of trying to tailor school programs to “fit” each individual student.  I don’t think it can work.  I want good teachers and good books, both seemingly in ultra-short supply nowadays.  “Data” can’t replace quality, no matter how high it’s piled up.