That NSA Thing – Think about the Data for a Minute, Think about It Differently

I started doing some photography as a hobby this year.  One thing I learned in the process is that not seeing the forest for the trees isn’t always a problem.  Sometimes the trees deserve some attention.

In this case, while it is interesting and import to consider the forest that is the overall surveillance issue in this case.  Let’s look at the trees here.  Specifically, let’s look at the data.  Where does it come from?  We know that some of it comes from these folks:

Microsoft – Yahoo – Google – Facebook – PalTalk – AOL – Skype – YouTube – Apple

You might not want them to give the NSA access to your information.  That’s fine.  Shouldn’t you also be concerned that those companies have the information to begin with?  I am.

Now that we’ve identified that problem with the trees, let’s work backward and with that perspective let’s reconsider the forest.

Look at some of the technology that the NSA uses to work with the data at issue.  Among other things they use Hadoop, and other open source software.  In fact, the NSA contributed a significant open source technology to the folks at Apache.  That’s right, the NSA has made publicly available a tool they use in their operations.  It’s called Accumulo.  (You have to agree it is no small irony that open source technology is being used in this particular way.)  Look here and here for more information.

Why is this important?  Well for one thing it means that if you had enough time, money and skilled people you could do much of what the NSA is doing.  To quote The Huffington Post:

The same cheap data storage and free open-source software used by the NSA now allows companies to conduct the kind of sophisticated data analysis once was only available to Internet giants like IBM and Google.

You’d be missing one thing though – the data.  Before you can analyze data the way the NSA does, you need the data.  Who has the data?  These folks, again:

Microsoft – Yahoo – Google – Facebook – PalTalk – AOL – Skype – YouTube – Apple

Putting two and two together, you can see the problem.  However you feel about these folks sharing data with the NSA, how do feel about them having it?  Last I checked Google doesn’t need a warrant to get the information that the NSA got from Google.  You give it to them yourself.

You also (probably) don’t need a security clearance to work at Google and access that information.  No doubt you’ll have a background check, but not a security clearance – that’s a whole other thing.  One also wonders whether Google has established the kind of compartmentalized access to information that U.S. intelligence agencies have in place.  So you have no idea who and how many people have access to the information at issue – before the NSA got it.  Let’s think people.  Work with me.

Let’s do question whether the NSA needs access to all the information it does access.  Also question whether it uses that information for the stated purposes only.  But then also ask why Google et al are not subject to the same scrutiny.  Please ask that.

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