“Paranoia”: Why Go To All The Trouble Of Watergate Break-Ins When You Can Just Have Big Data Companies Spy On Them?

From the Washington Post:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post. 

The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.

If document requiring company to submit phone records for millions of Americans is authentic, it would be the broadest surveillance order known to date. 

Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”

As I`ve been admitting for over a decade, I used to laugh back in the 1990s when the president of France would complain about the “Anglo-Saxon powers” listening in to his phone calls via Echelon. Of course, as it turns out, the president of France is seldom an idiot and employs people in his intelligence services who are indeed intelligent.

The Anglo-Saxon wiretapping cabal goes back to the famous Ultra project of WWII. It`s been a big deal my whole lifetime. I have family relations in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. who periodically move to the dead center of the Australian Outback because it`s the ideal quiet location for snooping on signal intelligence.

Tyler Cowen calls attention to this June 2, 2013 column in the Financial Times:

Obama’s faith in the geek elite who have your secrets 

By Edward Luce 

Self-interest guides the Big Data companies, and the same is often true of the White House 

… Mr Obama is no traitor to geek culture. His administration shares many of the faults and virtues of the Silicon Valley leaders to whom it is so closely allied. Mr Manning’s prosecution begins three days after the White House co-hosted its second “We the Geeks” conference with Google. This Thursday, Mr Obama will attend a fundraiser at the home of Vinod Khosla, one of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated venture capital geeks. And in the coming months the White House will be pushing for Congress to pass immigration reform – alongside a newly-created lobby group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook. This controversial outfit is called Forward (Fwd.us), which was also the slogan of Mr Obama’s 2012 campaign.

One of the geekocracy’s main characteristics is a serene faith in its own good motives. It is not hard to imagine how much greater the US left’s outrage would be over the drone programme were it carried out by George W. Bush or Mitt Romney. When Mr Obama asks Americans to trust that he evaluates every target on his “kill list”, most acquiesce. That pass is also extended to Mr Obama’s “signature strikes”, which select targets by probability based on often sketchy information. But there is a world of difference between zapping a known target and taking an educated guess. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Mr Obama’s reputation for being a nerd shields him from tougher criticism. Call it geek exceptionalism. To his credit, Mr Obama conveyed last month that he shares much of this disquiet in a lapidary address on counterterrorism. 

If signature strikes – attacking suspected terrorists before they can act – are the stuff of the film Minority Report’s “pre-crimes”, the Obama campaign’s brilliant use of demographic data is about “pre-votes”. His data team has aggregated more detail about individual preferences than most voters know about themselves. Mr Obama is likely to use his database as a bargaining tool to help secure his legacy after 2016 (whoever is the Democratic nominee will need it to win). It is no coincidence this resembles the growing ingenuity with which Facebook, and other social media, cull their users’ personal information. Mr Obama’s operation was partly designed by Silicon Valley techies. The Obama administration is also a strong ally of Google, Facebook and others in pushing against Europe’s moves towards far stronger data privacy rights. France’s so-called “right to be forgotten” sparks as much derision in Washington as it does in San Francisco. “Trust us,” say the geeks. “We have noble motives.” 

The reality is more mundane. Self-interest, rather than virtue, guides the growing clout of these “Big Data” companies in Washington. The same is often true of Mr Obama. Big data’s agenda is not confined to immigration reform. Among other areas, it has a deep interest in shaping what Washington does on privacy, online education, the school system, the internet, corporate tax reform, cyber security and even cyber warfare….. 

For while big data brings innovation, it also has dangerous side effects. Culture is already pushing Americans towards “data nudism”. Such currents will only get more acute. Before long, it will be possible to map an individual’s genetic sequencing at an affordable price. No one will be forced to attach their genetic record to online dating profiles. But potential mates may assume that anyone who chooses not to is concealing a genetic disorder. …

Mr Obama should pay closer heed to history. And he should become wary of geeks bearing gifts. 

edward.luce@ft.com

I worked in Big Data over 30 years ago, for a marketing research company that collected data on every supermarket or drug store item bought and commercial watched by tens of thousands of volunteer households in eight small town test markets. 

When privacy advocates objected, we asked, sincerely: What would we be interested in?

The best answer any privacy advocate came up with back in the early 1980s was that we might have records on file of a small town Protestant minister buying liquor at the grocery store, so we could then blackmail him.

Thirty years ago, this struck us as comic: Procter & Gamble wants us to provide them with representative samples, not with gossip about ministers hitting the bottle in Eau Claire, WI, and we want to satisfy P&G so we can satisfy Wall Street`s profit expectations. What kind of chump change could we make off blackmailing preachers, anyway?

Our old logic is becoming less persuasive, however, as Big Data becomes less voluntary, more pervasive, and more powerful as computers advance. These days, Big Data has its hooks into people a lot more important than small town preachers.

Think about Watergate. My best guess about what the Watergate burglary was about is that President Richard Nixon had expressed an interest in knowing what Democratic National Chairman Larry O`Brien knew about the Nixon family`s relationship with billionaire Howard Hughes. In 2013, however, why go to all the trouble of having plumbers break into the other party`s headquarters when you can just have Big Data companies spy on them?

For years, I`ve been pointing to odd little data points of Google screwing with people like Pat Buchanan and Glenn Beck. I doubt if this is a giant conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, with Larry and Sergey sitting around deciding who to target. More likely it`s just low level Google employees adding code to the giant Google hairball that harms people they don`t like. But, nobody has been very interested in investigating these incidents, perhaps for fear that Google might unpersonize them. I wouldn`t be surprised if it were common for people to self-censor themselves these days when it comes to giant, mysterious entities like Google and Facebook. Who knows what they can do to you if you peeve them? (Similarly, a friend has suggested that the reason American politicians agree to pay so much to the medical industry is that they are terrified that if they don`t, when they go under on the operating table, their surgeons will kill them. This seems insane, but, then, it`s the things we`re afraid to talk about that turn out to be most expensive to us.)

Are there any examples of Big Data biting anybody? 

I don`t know. I can`t think of too many suspicious examples. 

And yet … I keep coming back to the weird cases of the three critics of the Wall Street-Washington axis who were suddenly arrested in sex scandals: Elliot Spitzer, Julian Assange, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Or, maybe I`m just being paranoid.