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Government

Surveillance in the Era of Big Data

A social pyramid of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four… via Wikimedia.

(Review) Not too much to add to this post here (via Next New Deal)… using quite standard mathematical techniques and network analysis, the author is able to identify some very interesting characteristics of individuals from basic meta-data. This analysis is quite simple computationally today, and it is based on relatively unobtrusive monitoring of group membership. Today’s monitoring of practically all forms of communication – including Internet, e-mail, telephone, and mail service – allows for much more sophisticated analysis.

While network analysis of the massive monitoring of our communications is undoubtedly important, there are other big-data methods most likely being used as well, such as predictive analytics. Just as the private sector attempts to target advertisements based on a history of your Internet usage, there is little reason to believe that intelligence agencies are not doing something similar. This should give everyone reason to pause, for how often have you received an ad that is completely irrelevant based on your Internet usage? Quite often, no doubt. Do we really want government agencies targeting US citizens based on such a haphazard technique? Is our right to presumed innocence going to be trumped by big data and overly confident users of quantitative analysis (think about the reliance of big banks on quants before the sub-prime debacle)?

Some would say any surveillance by the government is no issue for civil liberty – as long as you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. A quick look at history shows that this is very short-sighted. Prevalent monitoring of a citizenry by its government is highly correlated with both erosion of civil liberties and totalitarianism. Countries with a history of such surveillance are quite rightly fearful of state monitoring of its people.

Americans should pay close attention to privacy concerns being raised and championed in countries like Germany, countries that have a history of abuse by state security apparatuses (think Stasi and Gestapo). It is in such countries, where people have a healthy sense of the dangers from over-reliance on monitoring and surveillance, that democracy is today raising valid concerns about the hyper-security state. Our democracy, however, is proving unequal to the challenge of protecting basic freedoms and human rights when it comes to state monitoring and surveillance.

Where this will all lead is highly uncertain, but it is not a good indication that US citizens can expect constitutional protections when secret courts are able to abrogate basic rights. Just read that last sentence one more time… are secret courts really commensurate with what the USA ostensibly stands for? We are indeed no longer in Kansas anymore, Toto.

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