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Domestic Surveillance: Tossing out more babies

Cyber lawyer Jennifer Granick weighs in:

The United States government either currently has, or soon will have, new technology that makes mass surveillance possible. The next question for citizens and other policy makers is whether and when to use this capability. [ . . .]

The president [is] wrong to suggest that the FISA warrant requirement doesn’t apply to mass surveillance. To the contrary, it means our current laws generally prohibit mass surveillance of American citizens without probable cause.

But should they? Now that we have the power, should we use it?

The alternative is . . . ?

[. . . more tortured arguments here . . .]

Mass surveillance isn’t just illegal, it’s probably a bad idea. We need to ferret out real terrorists, not create a smoke screen of expensive and distracting false positives that they can hide behind. More information doesn’t make us smarter. We need smarter information.

Jokes aside, it is an article worth reading.

Granick has long been a fighter for the underdog, though the mutts she used to look after were usually punks who broke into computers and who took issue with having to do time for their crimes. There is nothing like watching a lawyer practically weep over the fate of DEFCON attendees the late 90s if men with search warrants knocked on their doors. Very compelling.

The key point to take away from articles like this, from people like this, is that they offer no practical alternative. It isn’t a matter of bias: There IS no practical alternative. They don’t call this the information age for no reason. Who was it that said that we had no privacy “get over it”? Crass but true. This is a nation/world where people will give up all sorts of personal information to save 10% on dog biscuits. Somehow the liberal use of personal data for marketing purposes is more virtuous than using that same information to save lives.

I love folks who think that meaningful, useful and timely information just appears out of thin air. Leads have to come from somewhere, whether it is from a suspicious neighbor or a database of people who recently ordered fertilizer and fuel oil. As an intelligence analyst I had to sort through reams of paper (real or virtual) to find enough meaningful information for a two page assessment. Perhaps investigators should just go door-to-door or is even that too intrusive? I know! Let’s just have them sit around at the donut shop waiting for the next KSM to swing by for a dozen Krispie Kremes.

Granick does make a good point in that there aren’t enough actual people to sort through even the most well-refined results of a data mining effort. However, implication seems to be that we should just throw our hands up and quit. I would argue that more research into better algorithms is a more appropriate response.

Clue to the paranoid: No one keeps (in a working data set) data that is crap. The VAST majority of personal data will never hit the radar of “technologies of mass surveillance.” If your personal information is caught up in a data mining effort – this may come as a shock – you are not being subjected to “surveillance.”

Want a different perspective? Everyone who signs on for a job in the national security apparatus willingly subjects themselves (and to a lesser extent their family members) to MUCH more scrutiny than any data mining effort. They don’t complain and in fact they do it several times over the course of their careers. Granted, Joe Citizen isn’t volunteering to undergo a background investigation or polygraph, but is asking that Joe’s personal data be scanned (and almost assuredly rejected) by a “surveillance” mechanism an unreasonable burden in the defense of the nation?

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.