The NSA data privacy scandal: a different point of view

There's a lot of talk these days about how governments use all the data they can put their hands on, to monitor every individual in the world. Capabilities offered by big data storage and analytic processing are immense, when in the hands of professional, capable data scientists.  Last week the National Security Agency was under the spotlight, a month ago it was the IRS (Income Revenue Service) for a biased auditing  selection algorithm, and maybe next month it will be the CDC for some other monitoring, privacy or profiling issue. Of course private corporations are not exempt either. Indeed they are sometimes accused of collusion with government agencies, to share private data.

Is it really that bad? Maybe not. First, it should come as no surprise that Intelligence agencies collect and process as much data as they can: that's their role, by definition. I don't know a single person who has been harassed or interrogated by mistake. Indeed I don't even know a single person who has been contacted by the NSA. Even when I applied for NSA data science jobs, nobody ever talked or emailed me back. They have better things to do than looking in everyone's files.

For the average person, knowing that all your online, mobile and maybe driving, medical, and other aspects of your live are tracked, can help. First, you can start paying most transactions with cash rather than credit cards. Going to the doctor anonymously (in my case, I have no doctor and no medical records - I just don't use official healthcare). You can use an alternate currency that leaves no trail - I'm working on this, working on an anonymous digital currency for bartering. On Facebook you can create fake profiles. And for email, use encryption technology: we are working on a new email web app (SaaS) that allows two individuals to exchange messages totally anonymously: once the encrypted message has been decrypted (by the intended recipient) or 48 hours after it was encrypted - whichever comes first - it can never be decrypted again, and it is not stored anywhere. In short, if the government seizes the servers and database of this company, there's no way - by design - to reconstruct or decipher the messages from customers. More details on the technology later, but it's an example of data science used to protect people against their government.

Finally, here is an interesting test that you could do to check the government's real intentions. Create false security alarms, and see what happens. Example: you pretend that you want to collect a sample of each of the 100 or so elements in our universe (gold, helium, sodium, iron, uranium, polonium, plutonium, etc). You start with all the elements above 80, to make sure you can secure thwse ones first. Chances are very high that you are going to receive a visit from the NSA. The way the meeting goes, and how they treat you (e.g. Sorry but you need a permit to keep polonium at home vs. they throw you in jail right away) will tell you if they are mean and evil, or instead care about national security only.

Those who really think that the government is going too far could saturate these security agencies, with bogus cases like the one described above: they'll make these agencies spend all their time focusing on threats that are not real. But don't count on me to help with this: I think the privacy issues are grossly exaggerated. 

On a different subject, the problem of leaks is cause by a few factors. People who recently leaked information do not appear to be better than the agencies that they  have deceived. Also, due to severe restrictions in the hiring process (you need a clearance to work for them), these agencies don't necessarily get the best, most faithful employees. 

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Comment by Mirko Krivanek on June 17, 2013 at 7:39am

@Vincent: Government can print its own money. It's called quantitative easing.

Comment by Sam Kaplan on June 17, 2013 at 12:34am

1. The tax rate will not affect funding for NSA--they will get money before everyone else.

2. No country can survive without a revenue source (and revenue service).

These problems must be managed rather than solved--human beings will always abuse power, as history proves.  The solution is scrutiny and due diligence.   The difficulty with NSA is that there is no scrutiny, and the FISA court appears to rubber stamp rather than scrutinize requests.

Comment by Vincent Granville on June 16, 2013 at 7:44pm

@Mirko: The IRS is far worse than the NSA, in terms of the bad impact on people's lives. Also, we should not overestimate the power of government agencies, in terms of extracting actionable, valuable insights from data. One of their biggest challenge is the inability to merge data from multiple sources - they still work as independent silos. As a result, they routinely make mistakes, for example, failing to catch a bogus diploma or to discover hidden criminal records when hiring an employee. Not to mention the amount of fraud that goes unnoticed. 

Comment by Mirko Krivanek on June 16, 2013 at 6:32pm

Also, NSA, like any government agency, is funded by our tax dollars. So the smarter we are at minimizing our effective tax rate, the less money they have to spy on us.

Comment by Vincent Granville on June 16, 2013 at 9:16am

One concern is with census data. I was doing a search on a phone number recently, and found detailed information about the person on Radaris. I suspect the Census sells data to third parties. I know someone who always lie on the census form: he even created his own country and claims he's not and has never been American nor any other official nationality. After all, why should you comply with the Census? The US government forced US citizenship upon you, the day you were born, you never chose to be a US citizen. 

Comment by Richard Ordowich on June 13, 2013 at 5:57am

"Is it really that bad? Maybe not."

What society is lacking are guiding principles for data. What are the factors that should be considered before industry, individuals and governments exploit data? Have they considered the societal, political, economic, environmental and other factors that could be affected?

We are dealing with these issues after that fact. Decisions and directions established when in crises are too late. Kneejerk reaction.


Data is a societal resource not a government or industry resource and we need principles to help guide what are the responsibilities for the data at the individual as well as societal level.

We need to at least provide a governance framework of principles to be considered before organizations go off and treat data like the own it. We need to tone down the hubris around data and think about how we want as a society, data to be governed.

Comment by Sam Kaplan on June 13, 2013 at 12:28am

David,  There are several differences:

1. Participation in those networks is voluntary; support of NSA in mandatory through tax dollars.

2. There is no disclosure that your information will be shared with the government except in the case of criminal investigation.

3. Because of the power of sovereignty, the restrictions on government activity are more stringent not less stringent than on private entities.  For example, 1st Amendment.  A private school can open every activity with a prayer, while a government entity is forbidden to do so by the 1st and 14th amendments (applies the 1st to the states) as it would be an establishment of religion.  By the same token the 4th amendment and 9th amendment (zone of privacy) put restrictions on government access to your private information.   They require a writ by a court (FISA court is arguably not a court but a government agency masquerading as a court, all form no substance, as it rubber stamps every request), and probably cause of a crime and specification of what is being searched for (like a gun, or child porn on a hard drive).  None of those legal processes seems to have been respected, with the only justification being:   we prevented terrorism.

The problem with all this is two-fold:   First, a government of law in the US sense implies respect for process--we actually don't mind the fact that some innocents are convicted so long as the possibility is minimized by every procedural and legal protection being respected--other systems are concerned with outcome while we are concerned with process.  Second,  any authoritarian regime could use the same justification--the former Soviet Union pointed to its low crime rate, well, if you have intrusive secret police monitoring activity, you can lower the crime rate--or the terror rate--but at what cost?  For me, it does not meet the cost-benefit analysis test, although it may for many of my compatriots.

Comment by David Morley on June 12, 2013 at 8:33am

Sam, what is the difference between what the NSA is doing compared with companies such as (amazon, google, att, verizon, facebook, etc)? Don’t they link and data mine your personal information in a similar way? How are they not breaking the 4th amendment and creating a similar outrage? The only difference between them and the NSA, is they post a hidden bullet in a 20 page disclosure that no one ever has time to read.

As far as hit rates and correlation coefficients and search words , do you think the NSA should publish those with a value proposition so everyone could see?

Comment by Sam Kaplan on June 12, 2013 at 7:13am

1. As Americans we should not have to practice the evasions discussed.
2. The intelligence agencies are forbidden by law  from operating within the US.  That is why they are using an algorithm to determine the  "foreign" aspects of the data.  My understanding is that the  algorithm has 51%  likelihood of foreigness--or a coin flip--valueless.

3. The  4th amendment  prohibitions against unreasonable search and 9th amendment guarantees of a zone of privacy seem to be in conflict with the operation.

4. The existence of a secret court that rubber stamps all requests without adversarial process is contrary to American values and practice.

5. I don't know what algorithm God uses, but NSA's sucks.

6. I would not advise anyone to play chicken with the  intelligence services as the writer suggests--small upside benefit, large downside risk.

Comment by Vincent Granville on June 11, 2013 at 9:41pm

In terms of spying on people and tracking everyone's movement and words, who is worst: the NSA, or God?

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