Yes, because you
agreed to it.
There has been a lot of hoopla about Edward Snowden and his role in (and ultimately distaste for) the actions of the NSA and the Prism project.
What HAS come of it are a couple of really good articles that describe the mechanics of how data-profiling work.
One of the more spine-tingling observations is the “revelation” that a program called Accumulo is a system used by the NSA as part of the PRISM project.
Well, the surprise is not about the Accumulo system itself, just that such a system is actually in use.
Without getting all hyper-geek, the guts of the system is this – stick with me, I’ll keep it short.
Data from multiple sources is constantly collected. Information that on it’s own seems benign, and all but useless.
BUT all data is useful when applied.
This stockpile of information is just laying about, waiting for the Accumulo algorithms to work out how to link it.
And link it it does, new threads are connected on a day to day, minute by minute basis. Not that big a deal – databases have been used for as long as there have been phone books – what is concerning is if, and or when, that information is applied to you, more importantly WHY it would be applied, and what is done with the outcome.
I am no conspiracy theorist, but I am a writer, and I’ve been banging on about this very thing for more than a year. “Erasure” while a work of fiction and written a year ago, is entirely based on the facts that have everyone up in arms today.
What I guess I am trying to avoid saying is –
“I told you so”. No, that is peevish.
Back to the matter at hand.
“If Governments are trying to use this information to safeguard their borders, then in isolation that is probably a good thing. I’ve got nothing to hide after all.”
I guess that could be true, if there was a specific way of controlling the sensitivity, but there is the rub – algorithms aren’t designed to be capable of reasonable thought. They are designed entirely to be without it. It’s the whole point of them.
“So?” I hear you say, while considering checking facebook for the hourly installment of fluffy-cat-videos.
One of the goals of the PRISM project is to search for terrorist activity.
Much of said activity is believed to come from the Middle East.
Data might be collected on those connecting with individuals in the Middle East.
“So?” (There.. you said it again)
I am an Australian writer.
“YES?” (Okay… calm down – you might not like the next bit anyway)
I live in the middle east.
The blog you are reading, right this second, is technically and in the eyes of a soulless, data searching algorithm – a middle eastern blog.
“But, you aren’t speaking about the military?”
By suggesting “Military” in the above line, there is a potential for another flag to be made for the dogs to chase.
Do I think that the above actually serves as a problem, right now, for you or me? No.
Do I think that there is the potential, as all this data is stacked away waiting to be analysed; for innocent links to be made for no other reason than the mathematic orb that is Accumulo is interested in them? Yes.
Do I think that Accumulo is the ONLY database project strolling about the ether – picking fruit from the data tree? No. Categorically, no.
And that’s just the political stance.
What if companies use a similar system to fix pricing of goods (fuel, food, whatever) based on previous purchases and perceived personal income? As algorithms go, it wouldn’t be that hard to do – just a snap shot of fifty or so credit card statements from a couple of stores or gas stations in one neighborhood would tell them all they needed to know about the people frequenting the area, and spending their hard earned IN that neighborhood.
“Oh, this group of statements all have high credit limits. Most of them are paid on time. They can afford to pay more for goods” says the imaginary (but entirely plausible) data mining contractor.
What if law enforcement used an arbitrary data search that linked your television habits, online news articles clicked, and cell phone location services to profile the potential that an individual might commit a crime?
If you’ve got cable, the company has a record of what you’ve watched… for as long as you have had a cable TV account.
Got a cell phone? (Smart or otherwise) Any time it’s on, your whereabouts are noted – it helps the phone companies work out service coverage.
Read the news online? All clicks are monitored – for advertising purposes, and so that newspapers can see that the material they are producing is getting read, and by whom.
So…. Sure – you might actually be a whacko that likes to murder people as a side hobby and drive the bodies out to remote locations, and check to see if you made it into the news, AND whether the news story is as compelling as all the other news stories you’ve read about your whacko peers.
OR you might just like Bones/CSI/Dexter, because you like the actors. You might just enjoy hiking in remote areas. You might be apalled by the headlines that pop up on your news feed so can’t help but click on them.
The more I type, the more of a conspiracy theorist I sound – again, I’m not, but as a fiction writer it is my job to constantly play all possibilities out in my head.
All of this came together in “Erasure” a year ago, but as the book’s plot played out it got me thinking something that probably doesn’t spring to everyone else’s mind…
What if we are supposed to be forgotten?
What if a group of people believed that we are actually designed to be erased after death?
What if the same group set out to erase themselves while they were still alive?
Given the above monologue on the evils of cyberspace, Erasure is surprisingly light on the technical aspect, and heavy on the impact of people in real life. Yes it is a work of fiction, but the mechanics and implications in it are based entirely on fact.
Give it a try, you’ll see what I’ve been talking about since it was published.
I promise not to say “I told you so”.