Data Mining and Domestic Spying: A Societal Profile
Gutenberg: Father of the Flow
The organized flow of information in the western world can arguably be traced back to the invention of the movable type printing press in 1439. Its inventor, Johanne Gutenberg, chose a mix of boiled linseed oil and soot as his ink, but we’ve come a long way since then. The
inexorable flow of data across the centuries has progressed from leaflets, to books, to copper wires, to fiber optics and beyond, but this explosion of communication comes at a potential price: the organized violation of our online privacy.
Data Mining: A Hunt
The phrase data mining implies a hunt for something valuable, in this case, for information in the stratum called data. This hunt includes a search for patterns, which can be elusive, and requires analysis of disparate but related bits of information that are not always readily connected. A successful mining operation requires a substantial data set as a starting point, and this accumulation of raw data is often organized in a data warehouse that is optimized to be easily searchable.
Raw Data Required
The raw data is information, in the form of communications, primarily electronic, of everyone. The words you are reading now have already been sent to a massive database in the western United States, awaiting processing and analysis. Modern tools have substantially reduced the
amount of time required to acquire and analyze online communications, nearly to
the point of real time.
But its for your own good...
Government Intrusion: A Short Memory
As a nation we tend to have a short collective political memory. There are many known examples of State intrusion into public communications, and these are a matter of public record.
In the 1920s A. Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General under Woodrow Wilson, led the infamous Palmer Raids. This was a series of raids from 1918-1921 that targeted, among others, the offices of Communist and Socialist organizations. This was done without warrants or other due
process. The actions were justified by a perceived threat to national security, and few, if any arrests were made as a result of these domestic raids.
COINTELPRO and the Church Committee
Under J. Edgar Hoover the Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, was created. Under this program numerous social protest groups were spied on and harassed. The Church Committee of 1976 concluded that “The government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs…”
In its final report the Church committee said that segments of the government had adopted tactics “unworthy of a democracy”, and said that programs initiated with limited goals subsequently became “vacuum cleaners” that swept in information about the lawful activities of American citizens. In 1986 a federal court determined that COINTELPRO was responsible for 20,000 days of illegal wiretaps.
In the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. military, in a program called CONUS, monitored civilian political activity and maintained files on more than 100,000 individuals. During the 1960s, in Operation Chaos, as many as 7,000 Americans in the peace movement were spied on. During the Viet Nam War, the FBI used its National Crime Information Center, including a computerized database, to track the activities of law-abiding American citizens opposed to the war.
Justification for Domestic Spying
In most cases the justification to spy domestically seems to coincide with perceived external threats, and the balance shifts dangerously towards security and perilously away from constitutional freedoms.
The most notable justification of our time for such extensive domestic spying is the Patriot Act, originally enacted in reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City. It was intended to provide enhanced intelligence gathering capabilities to thwart future such attacks. In fact, the USA PATRIOT Act is an acronym: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001 there was a period of fear that this was only the beginning, and dramatic measures were needed to enhance intelligence gathering capabilities, especially as concerned online activities. In such an atmosphere it is easy to appreciate how the government reacted. However, if history is to be any guide, we must tread cautiously when silently acquiescing to the nearly complete intrusion by the government into the communications of its citizenry, with or without cause.
Ben Franklin: Patriot and Domestic Spy
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." So said Ben Franklin, wise and worldly, and himself many things, including a domestic spy for a time, and also, a printer.
Of course, what is 'essential' liberty and what constitutes 'temporary' safety is the crux of the matter. A climate of fear ripens the populace for acceptance of domestic surveillance, and encourages governmental overreach. In the past, technology was an impediment to absolute intrusion, but with public communications now largely online and out of sight, but vulnerable, it is critical that appreciation of the threat to our privacy be elevated to a new level.
Perhaps a nice taupe.
Palm Sunday and the Societal Profile
In the book, Palm Sunday, a novel about the unfettered violation of our online privacy, the term "societal profile" is coined. A societal profile, or SP, is a mechanism to uncover dangerous social trends, but it requires analysis of virtually all online communications to implement. Today, and for the foreseeable future, this implementation is all too real.
But they already know that.
More info about the book Palm Sunday
- Palm Sunday - they know what you're saying...
Kindle link for the book Palm Sunday.