Data is Power

I wrote this a couple of years ago, but the lessons are as valid today as when I wrote these words.

One advantage of living in the Boston area is the chance encounter with smart people in a neighborhood coffee shop or PTA meeting as the case may be.

I had coffee today with a new friend who I met at a PTA meeting a week ago. He works for a Boston based non-profit that protects MA residents from snooping. Having spent the last seven years outside the US, I wasn’t sure why one needs a local organization for this purpose — isn’t the NSA a federal agency? Isn’t electronic snooping primarily a national and international affair?

It turns out, local agencies do a lot of warrant-less snooping in the name of counter-terrorism. For one, there are 80 “fusion” centers spread across the country where data from different agencies is aggregated and compiled. These centers are funded partly by the federal government, but most of the funding is from the state — about 70% if my memory serves me right.

If we know one thing in the post 9/11 era, no politician can refuse money that’s demanded for the cause of countering terror. If anything, you might get more money than you asked for. No politician can afford to question anti-terrorism funding in public.

Now consider this scenario: there are 80 fusion centers across the country and between them they have to chase a handful of serious terrorism cases. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say no more than a dozen serious plots a year. Just to be sure, let’s multiply that number by a hundred. Even then, a fusion center will handle 15 cases a year on average. In other words, exceptionally well funded organizations with lots of staff on payroll have an annual case load comparable to what a local police station handles every week.

What does an underemployed snoop do to justify his paycheck? How do they spend the millions? Simple: expand the notion of terror. The term “terrorism” is fuzzy, it’s not like assault or battery. When a term has a poorly defined legal basis to start with, it’s easy to include anyone and everyone you want to control. That includes the various Occupy X-ers , peace activists, hackers, people who sympathize with hackers, people who’re related to hackers. Anyone whose last name is Assange.

That’s how big brother works in democracies — not as conspiracy or paranoia but as justification for a line-item in the budget. You start with a small but terrifying threat, add a couple of boundary cases and before you know it the lovely old lady down the street who once brandished a placard in front of a federal courthouse is tracked 24/7 in the name of fusion.

Data is power. Data is also control. Anyone who conducts scientific experiments knows there’s a positive feedback loop between collecting data, controlling experimental variables in order to collect better data, and expanding the experiments to include new situations. The snoops are being good scientists. I believe someone once called the creeping rationalization of depravity the “banality of evil.” I prefer to call it the Murphy’s law of Villainy.

Leave a Reply