To support a lot of the very relevant arguments that today’s new eavesdropping technologies infringe on constitutional liberties, there’s a new idea making the rounds, supported by some government analysts, that ultimately, the broad information gathering that’s been done to date is largely ineffective at stopping criminals. It seems we can’t even get assurance that these intrusive, privacy-disrupting processes are helpful in “preventing another 9-11” or whatever else law enforcement claims it is doing by snooping into the private lives of ordinary Americans.
Some of the newest criticism of NSA programs comes from individuals like William Binney, a former NSA employee. Binney rose through the ranks to become director of World Geopolitical and Military Analysis at the Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center in Maryland (see more about his background here, at Business Insider.)
In statements to the press, Binney contends that such activities are not just unconstitutional, but that they also fail to serve their intended purposes. Binney explains his position in an interview with Computer Weekly here.
By “collecting it all,” says Benny, agencies and companies actually gather nothing. They easily become overwhelmed by the volume of information in hand, and paralysis and failure result. Some call this “choking” on a glut of information that agencies and offices were never meant to have.
The Winnowing of Data
While you could take these claims of bulk data ineffectiveness at face value, many civil libertarians and privacy advocates are worried about a process where individual third-party companies take this mass of information and simply pare it down, in a kind of “reverse engineering” process, until they have useful and actionable data about individuals.
This kind of data engineering can take many forms. Companies might start with cell phone metadata on a list, and develop specific algorithms to tell where someone lives, how they pay bills, what types of media they enjoy, what they do for a living, and even whether they pay their bills on time and are a good credit risk.
From these bits of information, companies can develop ever more impressive marketing campaigns and zero in on consumers that much better. But what about the Constitution? Just the fact that this information is out there being sifted through by both government and business parties undermines many aspects of the freedoms and liberties that we’ve taken for granted, and that are codified in the founding fathers documents supporting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s extremely troubling that many articles of the Constitution dealing with freedoms of choice and privacy are being threatened by ever stronger technologies, because of management that doesn’t take these liberties into account. Of course, those who framed the original Constitution could not have anticipated these kinds of technologies, or their current uses.
As for the attitude that “if you have nothing to hide, what’s the problem?” we are seeing these ideas dispelled now. It’s obvious that the data gathering is done on groups of people that do not constitute any kind of threat in and of themselves. When you see that broad-spectrum intelligence is being misused, or that it has the capacity for open abuse, you know that it’s not just a question of criminality. Even the revelations, for example, that NSA employees could do “revenge searches” on their exes threw us into fits, precisely because of that issue, and the doublespeak that’s allowing these kinds of programs to go forward.
Thanks to whistleblowers like Snowden and Binney, we’ll hear more many about exactly how these programs work, and what’s being done, and whether it works for various purposes or not. But it’s critical for individuals to educate themselves about their rights, and what’s being done behind the scenes. We have to understand why “ordinary people” are using technologies like VPNs, proxies and anonymity tools to hide their web footprint, and why these activities are being seen by some as a challenge to the omnipresence of third party scrutiny.