Not Buying It

TPM Reader NB isn’t buying David Simon’s line about NSA surveillance …

As a fan of the Wire, I was pretty disappointed with Simon’s analysis, but as someone who works with Big Data and knows what it is capable of, not very surprised.

The basis of Simon’s argument is an analogy between NSA phone metadata and the phone records obtained by the police in the Wire. In both cases, he argues, the big deal is listening in to phone calls themselves, which the Wire police had to go through great lengths to obtain. He writes, “The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale.” But what we’ve learned from the modern computing era of Big Data is that sufficiently large quantitative differences can amount to qualitative differences.

There’s a deep difference between a small handful of police poring though printed out phone call records, and a hundred-million-person database instantly searchable by individual — especially since modern phone records have the capacity to record your location down to the square meter. These modern data are essentially a thorough record of the daily activities of almost all of us — where we are, and who we interact with. (See this article for a beautiful, chilling, but totally standard example of down-to-the-meter data records: http://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-data-retention .)

Simon asks, “how many agents do you think the FBI has? How many computer-runs do you think the NSA can do?” This reveals his unfamiliarity with how modern computing works. The power of these indexed, searchable and pre-mined databases is so far beyond a few earnest police searching through payphone call sheets that the analogy only serves to highlight just what is so novel and dangerous about the new system. For instance, anyone with access to it could become an instant Hoover, able to blackmail millions of Americans. But even apart from misuse — which Simon is right, we have no record of, if only because even the program itself was hidden from us before last week — the magnitude of this surveillance goes beyond what anyone in Baltimore in the 80s could have imagined.

Simon clearly knows his Baltimore police procedure, but he seems less knowledgeable about the modern era — which began with those burner phones but has moved far, far beyond them.

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