After having found out in the past week (thanks to a WaPo investigation) that nine of ten ordinary internet account holders were targets of the NSA mass surveillance, but not the intended surveillance targets, has justifiably amped up criticism of the super secret agency. Even before this latest incident, voices (including the authors of the Patriot Act). have called out for the NSA to back off and for congress to do something about the overreach.
One of the best recent articles - though not in the mainstream media - appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (Vol. 61, No. 6, p. 624). Entitled 'The NSA: A Betrayal of Trust - by Keith Devlin of Stanford University - it basically summarized in an articulate and coherent manner why so many of us object to the mass collection called "data mining". Thus, in his piece, Devlin concentrates on the indiscriminate vacuuming up of personal information that Edward Snowden released.
Devlin's own background entailed examining the problem of data mining in depth and whether dragnet surveillance that required "mass" warrants was really effective and justified. Thus, from early 2002 to 2006, he worked on a Defense Department research project called NIMD (Novel Intelligence from Massive Data, e.g.
funded by the Advanced Research and Development agency.
Devlin undertook this work under a contract to Veridian Inc. and the project was non-classified (he never sought or had security clearance - but his group was asked not to make public statements about its involvement. He acknowledged at the time he was "happy to go along with it".
Which brings us to why he's now gone into print. According to Devlin (ibid.):
"The only reason I am putting these words down now is the feeling of intense betrayal I suffered when I learned that my government and the leadership of my intelligence community took the work I and others did over many years with a genuine desire to prevent another 9/11 attack, and subverted it in ways that run totally counter to the founding principles of the United States, that cause huge harm to the U.S. economy, and that moreover almost certainly weaken our ability to defend ourselves"
(Devlin goes on to emphasize that "what my words express below is my considered and informed opinion that I never had, nor do I now have, any information beyond what is publicly available." Which is a justified aside to make, given how Obama & Co. have used the 1917 "Espionage Act" against those revealing anything)
Leaving out all the details I will just touch on several of Devlin's most important points and findings:
- The "significant human part" of the decision chain tends to be totally overlooked when intelligence leaders and politicians talk in glowing terms about the massive data processing of huge trawls of information.
- Data mining systems don't identify and take out terrorist groups, people do. And those people require not only accurate information but sufficient meta-information to have confidence in any decision that make. ('Meta-information' is information concerning the quality of the information -or lack thereof)
- The bigger you make the dataset, the wider the information trawl, the more unlikely it will lead to an effective counter measure. (Thus, not only did NIMD fail to meet its goal, but as the data collection grew the more inaccessible the goal became.)
- The methods and tools developed via NIMD could be of real benefit if used in a highly targeted way. Hence the real NIMD message: Use of the search and analysis methods should be narrow and deep.
- The best way to identify the high likelihood targets is via HUMINT (human intelligence). This is not only the most effective way known but "it does not require breaking laws and trampling on the U.S. Constitution. You get a court order and proceed lawfully, it's supposed to be the American way."
The last is a point I've echoed in multiple blog posts since July last year, to the point it's damned near a refrain. The point is what the NSA has now done, e.g.
has veered into totally Un-American ways, more emblematic of what the Gestapo used during the brief reign of the Third Reich. The American way, by contrast, respects the rights of citizens enshrined in the founding document - the Constitution and specifically, the Bill of Rights. It doesn't "go rogue" because technology allows facile snatching of data and personal info. Oh, and it doesn't go ape shit nuts and hyper-fascist because a true patriot called the misbegotten methods used out via file release to selected media.
Devlin's most telling statement echoes those I have also repeatedly made, in regard to the extend to which freedom should be compromised for a temporary security:
"Personally, I would not trade freedom in order to prevent terrorist attacks, even if they were more frequent than the current de facto frequency of every ten years or so. If you do that, the terrorists have won."
Indeed, because the 'bad guys' have manipulated the so-called "protectors" to do to us what they could not: gut our civil liberties and make a mockery of American freedom and rights aspirations. This is exactly why the contest between security and liberty must err on the side of the latter, no matter what. NO matter if ISIS poses a big threat to us, or al Qaeda in Yemen comes back strong, or Iran gets a new bomb...or whatever. All of those threats are insignificant to the preservation of American founding principles.
Once we allow the spooks to gut everything, snatch everything they want with bogus warrants under a bogus FISA law, we will cease to be the nation founded on the Constitution and the one my ancestor Conrad Brumbaugh fought for. We become instead a fascist mutation.
Devlin leaves his most stinging remark for last:
"As things currently stand, I would not collaborate further with any of the U.S. intelligence services. They have betrayed all of us who were glad to do what we could for the benefit of the free world and have used our work to trample over the Fourth Amendment, to do immense harm to U.S. economic competitiveness, to weaken the Internet on which modern society depends, and to expose us to increased danger from our enemies.
I urge all my fellow citizens to make a similar stand."
Alas, his final statement requires we stand up as truly free citizens, and reject the 'security blankets' offered us by the security state. "Live free or die" - the motto of one of our states (I believe New Hampshire) - should be our personal motto too!