Data Corrupts - Big Data Corrupts Absolutely

By John F. McMullen
Published: August 30, 2013
Key Takeaways

Before the extent of mass surveillance in the U.S. was revealed, we could all claim we didn't know any better. Now the problem - and our responsibility - is getting harder to ignore.

The recent revelations about the National Security Agency's data gathering and dissemination are more than a little troubling. Most IT professionals knew that the NSA and other agencies had the capacity to monitor telephone and telecommunications throughout the world; what none of us realized was the extent of the monitoring or how much of it was done on or against U.S. citizens.

In hindsight, we should have known better.

In a very perceptive article, "The Public/Private Surveillance Partnership," telecommunications expert Bruce Schneier wrote,

"Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones. If the National Security Agency required us to notify it whenever we made a new friend, the nation would rebel. Yet we notify Facebook. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation demanded copies of all our conversations and correspondence, it would be laughed at. Yet we provide copies of our email to Google, Microsoft or whoever our mail host is; we provide copies of our text messages to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint; and we provide copies of other conversations to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whatever other site is hosting them. The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government's intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage."

To many, the idea that intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to our data may sound like hyperbole. It isn't. That's because when information technologists collect data, their first impulse is to use it - to analyze it, link it to other data, make judgments about it, and keep it. Ellen Ullman wrote a wonderful book called "Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents" in 2001 that took the reader into the head of technologists.

In one case, a programmer came to Ullman for advice on a product distribution and traffic management system that he was working on, a system that involved delivery of the final product by air. There was one unusual kicker to the system: The delivery plane could be rerouted from one landing destination to another at the last minute. Ground vehicles scheduled to meet the plane also had to be rerouted. In extreme circumstances, the distribution drop-off would have to be canceled and the plane and cars returned to their facilities.

The system turned out to be a narcotics distribution system that used small planes to fly in from Mexico with narcotics and land on small fields in the Southwestern United States to meet U.S. drug distributors. To the programmer, there was no ethical or moral concerns about what he was doing; he saw this only as a very interesting systems problem to be solved. Is there any reason to believe that the spy technologists are much different? After all, technologists want to get as much value as possible out of data. That often happens through the use of advanced sorting, selection and analytic tools.

Law Enforcement agencies have also always been interested in the collection of as much data as possible to "help get the bad guys off the streets." And there are always cases where someone's willing to bend rules and regulations to protect the public. In fact, it turns out that the NSA has been secretly funneling information that it gathered to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and to the IRS. In both cases, the receiving agency was told to "launder the data." This involved "recreating" the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information came from. In other words, the receiving agency had to come up with a valid legal reason to investigate the subject in a way that would make the evidence admissible in a court of law. In reality, it was anything but.

What, if anything, is wrong with this? After all, it helps takes criminals off the streets. For a lot of people, that's enough, particularly when some of the bad guys may be terrorists. Others point out that these actions may violate constitutional guarantees of the Fourth Amendment, exceed the charter of the NSA and even poison the prosecution of the accused.

I recently interviewed Mark D. Rasch, an expert in corporate and government cybersecurity, privacy and incident response (this was before the recent disclosures of the NSA sharing the data). He said that while he agreed with what was known about the NSA surveillance activities at the time, he felt that there should have been full discussion with the public on the practices. Of course, that never happened. After the damaging news about the NSA broke, Rasch and Sophia Shahnami wrote a scathing analysis on the DEA's attempt to justify its actions.

As more and more revelations come out, the reaction from the technology and civil liberties communities becomes stronger. The aforementioned Schneier wrote a very strong piece in the Atlantic titled "The NSA Is Commandeering the Internet," in which he said,

"It turns out that the NSA's domestic and worldwide surveillance apparatus is even more extensive than we thought. Bluntly: The government has commandeered the Internet. Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we've learned, fight and lose. Others cooperate, either out of patriotism or because they believe it's easier that way. I have one message to the executives of those companies: fight

That sounds extreme, but in a way, it isn't unreasonable. The way things are moving, I expect to live in a full-surveillance society with someone or some system reading my email, listening to my phone calls, watching me on cameras in the streets and other public places, tracking me through my smartphone, monitoring my social media accounts and even observing me through overhead drones.

If the idea of giving up this much privacy bothers you as much as it bother me, now is the time to put heavy pressure on ISPs and technology firms and political representatives. Until recently, we might have said we didn't know any better. Now we do, which means that if we don't want someone watching our every move, we'll have to be the ones to pull the blinds.


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Written by John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on

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