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Nothing Sinister About 'Social Network Analysis'

May 11, 2006

By now you’ve likely heard of the USA Today article illuminating the extent of the NSA domestic data-mining operation: NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls

Some highlights:

With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.
. . .
The government is collecting “external” data on domestic phone calls but is not intercepting “internals,” a term for the actual content of the communication[.]
. . .
“personal identifiers” — such as names, Social Security numbers and street addresses — can’t be included as part of the search. “That requires an additional level of probable cause[.]”

“Additional level”? Is this to say there’s already some initial level of probable cause to collect the ‘external call data’ of millions of telephone customers?

Let me guess. September the eleventh changed everything. We are at war. The enemy lurks among us.

They article also points out that “personal identifiers” aren’t included. Hmm… But, wait. They get your fuckin telephone number! (Just for grins, click that link, and type in your number.)

Some practical questions for those who are unmoved by the innocent-people-have-a-reasonable-expectation-if-not-a-right-of-privacy argument or the coerscive-institutions-cannot-be-trusted-with-such-copious-personal-information argument:

  1. How does the NSA analyze the data?
  2. Do they even know how?
  3. Is it even possible?
  4. Can such a process possibly be reliable and efficient?
  5. Today? Or are we making this up as we go?

And a couple of questions for you and me. If you read this page regularly, but never comment, weigh in!

  1. Is Your Montag an irrational OFFAL hater; with a blame OFFAL first attitude; who uses derogatory acronyms to avoid uttering OFFAL‘s name; bent on bringing OFFAL down at all costs; and this post merely the latest manifestation of this disorder?
  2. Or, is data-mining something of legitimate concern, that Your Montag would rail against regardless of who our leaders are at the time?
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7 Comments
  1. May 11, 2006 3:45 PM

    Wow, this Gen. Hayden must have some powerful enemies! A leak of this sort could be devastating for Bush and Co. Of course, I haven’t watched television today, so maybe nobody else even knows about this story.

    Data mining is a major concern, and you don’t have to be a Bush hater to be upset. I think Bush is deserving of all the scorn and fury we can muster.

  2. May 11, 2006 3:55 PM

    I think we know now why the government sought to intercede in the EFF’s lawsuit against ATT.

  3. May 11, 2006 4:07 PM

    I understand the telephone company collects this data for billing purposes. The government role should be to protect us from the company using the information for other purposes in violation of some notion of privacy.

    It really gives me the creeps that the government and corporations are in this together.

    So I agree, JR, and Sifu Tweety of the Poor Man, shares in your speculation on potential enemies of Hayden.

    TNG, I just recently dropped SBC (now ATT) as my internet provider. They asked me why. I wanted to say, “I’m concerned about your company’s role in the NSA’s data-mining program,” but I didn’t dare, because I was canceling over the phone… and they were recording the conversation for ‘quality control’ purposes.

    Didn’t know I’d get all Marvin the paranoid android on your ass, did ya?

    Thanks for the link, as well, TNG.

  4. MadameD permalink
    May 11, 2006 6:02 PM

    Y’know, sometimes the paranoia comes true.
    I used to do the stupid teenage shit of saying the lines that would make them start taping your call (didn’t know if it was actually true, but what the hell, I was 15) and then start talking about periods and makeup. Like any poor government schmuck really wanted to hear the gossip at Walsh?
    Still, though…I really long for that tricked out cave in the middle of Canada sometimes.

  5. May 12, 2006 11:18 AM

    Heard it from a friend, who, heard it from a friend, who:
    1. How does the NSA analyze the data? -> Possibly by sophisticated processing of a simple text database containing keywords.
    2. Do they even know how? -> They aren’t using fake data anymore, so they must have some level of confidence in whatever system they have.
    3. Is it even possible? -> SETI project apparently processed 250 million channels of signal simultaneously using 21 general purpose PCs, in 1995.
    4. Can such a process possibly be reliable and efficient? Sure. 5. Today? Or are we making this up as we go? -> I think both. The core of the project is clearly beyond development phase, but the ultimate usefulness of the system, in practice, is probably still being figured out?
    Is data-mining of legitimate concern? -> No more or less than any other powerful technology in the hands of bumbling psychopaths.

  6. May 16, 2006 9:20 AM

    I was wondering how it would be possible to ‘analyze social networks’ using only “external” data (telephone numbers, times, dates) to suss out terrorist activity.

    It would seem that they would need to know at least one terrorist phone number so they could go back into their database, (which they dream will one day account for ALL telephone calls made,) and find out who they’re talking to. But it would be easy to get a warrant for that and to then get the records from the telephone company. So, if everything is on the up-and-up, why does our government need such a database?

    And in light of today’s news, I don’t think it is paranoid to say I think there is most certainly something more sinister going on here.

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