The secret policeman’s crystal Ball

08 June 2013

The NSA has a huge surveillance program called PRISM ; now a key point of the program is a large call data base (story was first reported here ); Here is what Mr. Schneier has to say on the subject .

This call database contains records on all calls that have been made between two telephone numbers. A record contains the following data: * phone number of the caller and the destination of the call * time and duration of the call. * location data from where the call has been made.

If things are viewed from a data processing perspective than it is possible to understand the following; (Disclaimer: my theories might also be wrong, I am not an expert in the areas of Security or law and order)

The real value of a call database is that it can be used to build a social graph . A social graph consists of nodes: each telephone number (standing for a person) is a node in the graph; two nodes are connected if there has been a phone call between two phone numbers; a connection between two nodes in the graph is called a link in the graph. It is possible to assign attributes to links: if there have been many calls then the attribute that shows the strength of link gets a higher value; timing and activity of calls can also be assigned weights, so that recent calls are of higher value, etc. etc.

A social graph shows exactly how individuals who make up society as a whole are interconnected. If a political movement has a leader, then the social graph can show the following

* what is the immediate circle of contacts around a leading personality

* what is the larger cluster of persons who are influenced by the leader person; this is achieved by following the immediate circle contacts and then the contacts of the contacts, etc.

* what is the intersection of different clusters of interest; this could mark the degree how certain movements influence one another.

* what are the dynamics of influence: did a leader manage to gain a wider following, what was the time frame when influence was acquired. etc. etc.

* Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping point argues that social movements are usually initiated by a small number of persons, by those who tend to make a difference

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. ... the 80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the 'work' will be done by 20 percent of the participants.

Clustering of the social graph can identify persons with unusually high level of connectivity / activity. These persons can then be identified and could be targeted for further influence. One can create a ‘Who is Who’ database of multiplier persons who could wield a wider influence.

  • It is possible to apply statistics / machine learning algorithms in order to extract significant clusters from the data; this would effectively create a map of society; A dossier on every person is feasible.
  • Location data can track the movement of subscribers; it is possible to check if a given person has taken part in a protest action or not; it is possible to know if a person has attended a public meeting; Lots and lots of possibilities, and it is all data that can be used in court against a plaintif.

Lots of things are possible with such data; it is of course also a question of cost vs benefit, we don’t know what measures were actually implemented in the end. We also don’t know what kind of data was gathered from the big technology companies. I know that law enforcement organizations like to extend their scope and reach, just because of the possibility and out of institutional interest. The question of oversight and accountability is crucial, but these are obviously lacking ; the NSA anual budget is estimated around 10 billion $, so the possibilities are huge.

Is this knowledge effective at fighting terrorism? I don’t know; terrorist organizations are very sectarian; it should therefore be relatively easy to figure out a wider circle of connections that originate from a close nit circle of suspects. Of course tracking a defined small circle costs a fraction of what is required to track the whole population;

It might be argued that sweeping surveillance measures are needed in order to monitor “sympathizers” of terrorist movements. I don’t know, not so long ago back the 1970ies, West Germany had the problem of left-wing RAF terror , special laws were passed the state reacted by monitoring suspected radicals; some 3.5 million individuals were investigated and 10,000 refused employment ; meaning they were not allowed to work as civil servants . For a democracy, that’s quite a lot of papers turned, the West German state was worried about infiltration, it was worried that leftists would implement a long march through the institutions and gain positions of influence in the bureaucracy.

What is learned here is that the measures that are taken by the state are proportional to the threat level perceived by the state; I don’t know if such a strict level of surveillance is justified by the current level of insecurity, is this the real state of the union? The BBC tries to explain the situation during the Iraq war the NSA got into a habit of tracking the metadata of each and every conversation - the trick of following the social graph of terror suspects was an efficient tool during the surge . However the threat of terror in Iraq was much much larger than what we have now; Iraq saw suicide bombings on a daily basis.

It is possible that the perceived risk of terrorism in the US is out of step with the real risk, it is also likely that the suggested ‘fix’ to the problem is not effective, and that it creates new problems; Bruce Schneier says so

Is it all about policing of internal dissent, about monitoring movements like the occupy movement ? Might be, but I guess that would not be too constitutional. The crash of 2008 has taught us that society is very brittle, less stable than what we got used to think.

Are these measure introduced, just because technology makes it feasible to snoop on us ? Maybe the element of preemption plays a factor: if the government does not log the whole traffic then competing powers might do it, so we better do it just in case. It is hard to tell if this is a real factor. Is sweeping surveillance just another tool in an ongoing cyber arms race ?

Lots of questions here, not too many answers are forthcoming.

How did we get here?

I think it is an unlucky combination of factors

  • Each law enforcing agency is always grabbing as much power as it can get;
  • the Patriot Act gave them the license to do expand the scope of snooping.
  • the technology makes it possible; digital trail that everybody is leaving is very significant, so somebody will always try to grab it, be it corporations or the state. Nature does not tolerate a vacuum of power. Sen. Ron Wyden says: “It used to be that the limits on technologies were to a great extent a form of protection for the American people. A lot of that seems to be going to the wind.” - link
  • the nanny state is much about extending command and control over its subjects. I think that Eric Schmidt is unfortunately right here: ‘surveillance … is the nature of our society’ link . Bruce Schneier formulates it like that : Surveillance is the Business Model of the Internet ; Corporation gather a lot of data on us, so that they will be better at placing adds that are matched to our profile; this mountain of data is in private hands and government agencies just have to tap it.
  • power is addicting / secret power must be very addicting.
  • The cold war has finished some time ago; so nowadays there is no need for moral superiority over an ideological enemy. Nowadays anything that strengthens the state is good for us;
  • There is also a growing sense of insecurity, its not just the threat of terrorism, I think that even an inflated threat perception would not explain the monitoring of all communications, there are more cost effective ways to isolate and deal with violent sects; It is a general sence of insecurity; maybe its the fears of a sudden financial crisis that can bring about upheavals; maybe there are other potential threats. I guess the security apparatus is called uppon to compensate for that sense of general insecurity. ( more here )

I don’t know how you want to put the genie back into the bottle, part of the equation is that society would have to change here; just seems to be an impossible problem to solve.

An intersting observation is that social graphs are essentially instruments of surveillance / social control. Maybe some of the value that is somehow factored into the share price of facebook and google is the larger political significance of all those huge mountains of data that these companies are gathering on us. It is also interesting (although disgusting) to observer that in some way surveillance and social control of large groups of people are now the motors of technological progress, at least in the field of data processing.

Also I guess the NSA should adopt this Stasi anthem; it says something like ‘Tell me where you stand and which path you are on’

The STASI says:

“Wir haben ein Recht darauf, dich zu erkennen. Auch nickende Masken nuetzen uns nichts. Ich will beim richtigen Namen dich nennen und darum zeig mir dein wahres Gesicht.”

My translation:

(following some incantions that hide imanent conflicts that originate from supressed (prussian) upbringing, all that combined with Soviet paranoia (that’s what you had in the GDR))

“we have the right to recognize you/nodding masks (disguises) are of no use to us/I want to name you by your true name/therefore show me your true face” - apparently speaking here for the ministry of state security.


Wolf Biermann made the following poignant observation: the realities of East German socialism was that of computer Stalinism, where dissenters receive a special hole in the punch card of their personal file, whereas Stalin would punish dissenters with a bullet hole in the neck ( here ) . In a way he saw this a process of gradual liberalisation of the stalinist system, however the power structures of the Stalinist system would remain unchanged. So much for computers being the technology of liberation, these are just tools that can be used for any purpose …

In the Sci-Fi novel The Caves of steal by Isaac Asimov there is an overpopulated and heavily urbanized planet Earth vs the space colonies; The space colonies are rich and have a low population density, unlike Earth they tolerate and use Robots. The plot of the novel is a detective story, where detective Elijah Baley is working together with Robot R. Daneel.

R. Daneel came to his desk with a sheaf of papers. "And those are?" asked Baley. "A list of men and women who might belong to a Medievalist organization." "How many does the list include?" "Over a million," said R. Daneel. "These are just part of them." "Do you expect to check them all, Daneel?" "Obviously that would be impractical, Elijah." .... Baley said, abruptly, "How did you get your list?" "It was a machine that did it for me. Apparently, one sets it for a particular type of offense and it does the rest. I let it scan all disorderly conduct cases involving robots over the past twenty-five years. Another machine scanned all City newspapers over an equal period for the names of those involved in unfavorable statements concerning robots or men of the Outer Worlds. It is amazing what can be done in three hours. The machine even eliminated the names of non-survivors from the lists." "You are amazed? Surely you've got computers on the Outer Worlds?" "Of many sorts, certainly. Very advanced ones. Still, none are as massive and complex as the ones here. You must remember, of course, that even the largest Outer World scarcely has the population of one of your Cities and extreme complexity is not necessary."

Here it is, a book from the 50ies explains that one needs complex computers in order to cope with dissent in over complex societies. Good Sci-Fi is better than a crystal ball;

Also the movie Minority report (2002) is about this certain lack of privacy; here is what wikipedia has to say here

"Spielberg conceived of the idea of a future world permeated with intrusive capitalism and government surveillance after everyone at the "think tank summit" told him that "the right of privacy is a diminishing commodity" which will soon be thrown "right out the window".\[30\] According to film critic J. Hoberman, Minority Report "visualizes (as well as demonstrates) a future where the unconscious has been thoroughly colonized."\[96\] When the movie first appeared in theaters a common source of reviewers' complaints was the film's product placement, which they found intrusive.\[97\] The personalized advertising is disconcerting partly because of the invasion of privacy, but also, argues Cooper, because it is cold, impersonalized, and insincere.\[93\] Film scholar Martin Hall says that the purpose of the ads Anderton runs into are "encouraging him to buy certain products and, by extension, affirm his place in society."\[98\]

Spielberg said in a press conference in 2002: here

"I want to be clear about this: I'm not an advocate of pulling back the CIA's and the FBI's far-reaching powers right now," Spielberg said. "I think this is a time of war, and they need to do what Lincoln did when he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1862… During times of war, things like that have to happen. What I'm worried about is when we have finally gone beyond the brink, where we are right now, and things start to settle down. Will the government pull back those powers of surveillance? Or are they going to say that's the new standard for them? Like, 'Hey, you've lived with them for five years. Sorry, folks, but that's just the way it's going to be from now on.' I hope that doesn't happen. That would be very sad. If this doesn't end, then we'll have to go back to the college campuses and hold up signs."

Interesting that i always seem to ‘get’ things with a ten year delay. I guess the message of the movie was a bit veiled on purpose, so that people would not object too much, given the terrible terror attacks of 9/11.