Surveillance and Big Data

Here I introduce my thoughts on what I hope is a topic for future discussions.  I based a research project for grad school on how surveillance inherently harms democracy and hope to generate an active discourse to shape responsible policy moving forward in a deeply interconnected and globalized society.


Watching the Cloud

Good morning,

First, a history:  I spent a year teaching in China.  While living there it was more or less assumed by myself and the other foreigners living there that our activities were being monitored.  A friend told me in 2010 while we were in Mongolia that he used to teach in China.  After a class discussion or an anecdote about Tibet he was reported by one of his students and asked to leave the country.  One female acquaintance told a story about how a friend sent a racy pic to her husband and the friend said she probably made the day of some low level Chinese data analyst.  I was a teacher and my friends comfortably living in Qingdao were by no means dissidents so there was no reason to think that our activities would put us in any kind of danger.  I was still in China during the summer of 2013 when the revelations about NSA surveillance released by Edward Snowden became public.  A European friend said to me that the US has lost all credibility for trust now that we know the US conducts wide ranging surveillance on its citizens and foreign leaders.

Later, I joined the US Army and have mostly assumed that there is at least limited monitoring over certain actions.  I have to submit detailed itineraries whenever we go out of country.  Certainly when I am using my computer at work there are places that I cannot go online which are likely sending up red flags to a distant analyst.  I am not concerned for my own safety or limitations on my freedom, but I do feel that surveillance has an inherently negative effect on democratic society and this is my primary concern and the focus for this and all other posts on surveillance.

My research came out of a reading of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle.  As my research developed I think incorporating a novel into otherwise prosaic research became a distraction, although many of Solzhenitsyn’s ideas are still resonant.  It would be wrong to assume that surveillance automatically pushes a society into the Soviet police state.  Still, the breadth of capabilities (from which most of my research came from Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide) and the lack of citizen oversight over the NSA and the constellation of organizations conducting surveillance limits the ability of citizens to direct their future.

I want to be specific, I’m concerned about freedom of expression, a free press, government transparency and citizen oversight of surveillance practices.  While I believe that surveillance damages democracy in principle I want to keep my argument from soaring to this level of idealistic rhetoric.  However there is plenty of evidence to suggest that national reputations and freedom have been tarnished and those can be argued later.

A part of my research came from a report released by Pen America which showed that 1 in 6 Pen America writers avoided writing or speaking about a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance.  Specifically, Pen America writers self-censored in three ways:
a) reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects
b) reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects
c) reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad for fear that they will endanger them

One anonymous writer argued “As a writer and journalist who deals with the Middle East and the Iraq War in particular, I suspect I am being monitored.  As a writer who has exposed sexual violence in the military, and who speaks widely on the subject, likewise.”  This is an example of how surveillance can work against a nation’s own self interest.  As a member of the Army we have frequent briefings on the SHARP program which promotes prevention and reporting of sexual harassment and assault to protect victims and strengthen the longevity of those serving.  The point is that while exposing sexual assault was embarrassing to the military in the short term the imposition of programs designed to prevent it have helped protect victims and encourage members to stay in uniform who might have left otherwise.  If these authors choose not to write then an egregious problem might be allowed to continue and members will leave.

This second point from Pen America to avoid research is something I felt personally.  As a member of the military we received intelligence briefings about the existence of publications such as Dabiqthe English language online magazine designed to recruit people to ISIS.  I was curious as to what constituted an effective appeal to prompt people to leave their lives and fight an ideological war against the West.  While investigating this material may have strengthened my understanding of ISIS I made an explicit decision not to investigate for fear that it would bring negative attention.  To be fair, perhaps an analyst must throw up red flags because it is very difficult to tell academic interest from one which might be or might become a terrorist threat.  This is contentious but I argue that the potential for flagging someone as a target for curiosity limits academic work and cultural understanding of an other: enemy or otherwise.

The third point from Pen America is also of personal concern.  I married a foreigner (from the Republic of Georgia) and have many foreign friends and now family members.  None of these people (to my knowledge) pose any threat to American or national security.  I have not yet felt the need to avoid certain topics but I may in the future.  A potentially important discourse which can further my understanding of the world is being stifled from a fear of surveillance.

Another major component of surveillance in this interconnected world is big data.  I will introduce the topic with a personal anecdote though this is probably unnecessary.  Recently I went to a restaurant with some friends.  During the evening I took out my phone (a Samsung) to take a picture.  This was the only time that I used or checked my phone that evening.  The next day my phone (maybe via Google, the source was ambiguous) asked me a question about the restaurant’s accessibility for disabled patrons.  This is not pernicious but it does mean that my phone was generating geolocation data about my whereabouts and thus likely the people I was with.  So long as the service is limited to generating beneficial information for the convenience of consumers then there is no problem.  However the basis of my concern is that this capability is a small step away from surveillance in which someone could create a profile of my activities which could be used against me.  This mosaic theory (Crampton, 528) of data aggregation can assemble deeply intimate portraits of individuals from data points which are innocuous on their own.  My concern is that users will have no say in when this information is and is not being collected and very little awareness of how that information is being used and by whom.

Granted, there is likely a way to disable some of the functions which I am describing as a concern.  However, this assumption ignores default settings and assumes that users will be far more vigilant than is the case.  Other research indicated that the public outcry over Snowden’s revelations showed that surveillance was not on the radar for most people (Lyon, 142) and therefore the default geolocation settings benefit the one conducting surveillance.

Asked if Big Data was a softer version of Big Brother, Kenneth Cukier responded in an interview:

The Snowden Affair should give everyone pause.  It was sad that it became politicized because what this fellow was saying was not that we were living in a turn key totalitarian state but that we were laying the infrastructure for this to happen.  Because if we’re going to accept big data and all of the benefits that we can use it for then we need limitations so that we can preserve our fundamental freedoms and if we don’t have that then these technologies can absolutely lead to the detriment of human beings.

Now, this conversation about limiting surveillance must be two ways.  I acknowledge that security provides a good justification for surveillance.  The war on terror has been the US justification for sweeping surveillance over citizens and foreign entities.  It offers a handy excuse but it is difficult to justify that the depth to which surveillance was conducted in the name of security had anything to do with defending the country (certainly the monitoring of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Petrobras and Germany’s Angela Merkel are hard to justify as”security”).  And because surveillance is conducted in secret there is no way to guarantee that surveillance measures target a security threat versus mere dissent (Greenwald, 183).

That said, there are instances in which surveillance and its clandestine methodology provided the intended benefit.  An article this week in The Economist described an instance in which the loss of secrecy for an operation ruined its effectiveness: “A former CIA employee… tells how, after a successful raid in 1998, journalists learned that the NSA was intercepting calls from the satellite phone of Osama bin Laden… Immediately after the news got out, the phone fell silent.”  Monitoring bin Laden provides an example in which citizens grant wide approval and one could argue that the disclosure was best left in secret.

The problem with secrecy is the lack of public oversight.  Greenwald described capabilities where an NSA analyst could watch all of a user’s online activities in real time including the content of emails, web chats and attachments.  To access this information the analyst needed to fill out a generic request form and the information was provided to them without requiring approval from superiors.  (Greenwald does not describe whether this justification form was subjected to later scrutiny if the analyst was suspected of abuse.)  Here I argue that the mere capability of surveillance can pose a risk to citizens.  As Snowden and the recent arrest of a Booz Allen Hamilton analyst demonstrate the NSA and its subcontractors do not sufficiently vet their analysts to head off deviant behavior.  If these individuals are capable of stealing classified information and using NSA systems other than intended then what is to stop another leak, or from an analyst using surveillance for personal gain, to target a rival, or to stalk a lover.  (This sounds absurd but the intelligence community uses the moniker “loveint” to designate intelligence gathered through romantic liaisons.)

I do not mean to sound paranoid.  Much of my research was taken directly after the Snowden revelations.  The Economist special report stated this week that “The NSA touches 1.6% of data travelling over the internet and selects 0.025% for review.  Its analysts see just 0.00004%.”   That sounds to me like limitations have been put in place to curb past excess.  However I want to ensure that this subject remains prescient in the minds of users.  I make no statement nor do I have opinions on whether Snowden was a whistleblower or a traitor.  But it is true that he acted in violation of his top secret security clearance.  (An article  stated that Snowden made little or no attempt to raise his concerns with his superiors.  Perhaps his intent was to avoid raising red flags which could prevent his disclosure.)  Perhaps one day the public will feel the same way about the Snowden leaks as we now feel about Daniel Ellsberg.  What I will say is that I am proud to serve in the US military, that I was equally proud to work abroad acting as a cultural ambassador, and my concerns regarding surveillance are only to ensure the resiliency of freedom for democratic discussion, an engaged civil society, a transparent and independent judiciary and the freedom of the press which facilitates this freedom.


Works cited not otherwise linked:

Crampton, Jeremy W. “Collect it all: national security, Big Data and governance.” Geo Journal. 2015.

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan Books. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. 2014.

Lyon, David. “The Snowden Stakes: Challenges for Understanding Surveillance Today.” Surveillance and Society. 13(2): 139-152. 2015.


5 thoughts on “Surveillance and Big Data

  1. Pingback: Mike Pompeo- Surveillance Proponent and Threat to Democracy | The Way Out

  2. Pingback: Deep Web- Review | The Way Out

  3. Pingback: China’s Social-Credit System | The Way Out

  4. Pingback: Vault 7 | The Way Out

  5. Pingback: Data up for Sale | The Way Out

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s