“We know you better than you do”. Should we be worried about spy programs?
12/06/2013 | FxM – Hugo Vázquez
If the in the year 1772 the British Secret Services was asked to look for those individuals that meant to attack the British Crown´s interests in their colonial territories, a simple “Social Network Analysis” would have been enough to detect the dangerous Paul Revere (“Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere”, Kieran Healy, June 2013). It would not have been necessary to intercept and analyze all his communications, but just by analyzing who pertained to which organizations the importance of this character could have been known in the ordeal that would eventually lead to the separation of the American Colonies from British rule.
Two hundred and some years later, the technological advances that have been made allow us to collect, measure and analyze huge amounts of information (data) captured through a large variety of digital devices that we use every day, such as: personal devices (cell phones), institutional data bases, social networks, government websites, etc.
So, what are the possibilities that the government-run spy program like the NSA´s “PRISM” turns out to be effective?
The program has an approximate possibility of 1 in 10,102 to find a bad-guy, which is like finding a needle in a haystack (Corey Chivers, Bayesianbiologist.com, June 2013). An act of terrorism is an extremely rare event in the western world. In fact, more deaths could be avoided by stepping up vigilance and supervision of “normal” activities like traffic control than with the NSA´s sophisticated “PRISM”. According to the WHO “every year more than 1.3 million people die as a consequence of traffic accidents”.
In the case of the U.S., a poll was taken by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post and presented on June 10th which showed that Americans have a wide range of opinions on National security and this opinion is dependent on who is in the White House. So, a large number of Democrats support actions taken under Barak Obama´s administration which they wouldn´t have supported with George Bush, while the opposite occurs with Republicans.
Therefore, should we be worried about these types of “spy” programs?
Actually, yes. Let´s not forget that even in 2013 almost one fourth of the world´s population is living under dictatorships that control, among many other things, its population´s access to Internet. In spite of different types of democracy being practiced for more than two thousand years, voting rights for women and minorities are so recent that even when Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. civil rights for African-Americans were still restricted and in Spain, for example, women couldn´t vote or hold office.
Are whistleblowers harmful?
If either of these phrases sparks your interest: “We are facing radicals with a 7th century mentality who have 21st century technology” or “For a society to function well, there have to be basic level of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures” (David Brooks, NYTimes, June 2013), then you will understand that it is important to let the “watchman” know he´s also being watched, and that no one should be free to commit acts of injustice thinking they won´t be discovered and brought to justice.
Can we do anything to protect our privacy?
According to Alex Tabarrok (Marginal Revolution, June 2013), “aside from our electronic communication… the government has access to all of our credit card purchases… and our purchases say more about us than we do in emails. `Buying behavior´ can be used to predict –or define- individuals.” Apart from what we buy, our searches online tell our internet navigators and search engines what interests us, which are now taken into account when creating publicity directed towards our “online profile” and are restricted by our previous searches. For a deeper look into this, you can read “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” (Charles Duhigg, NYTimes, February 2012).
All of this brings us day-by-day closer to the existence of Big Brother, which can take an Orwellian form or something akin to what Isaac Asimov was thinking about in 1955 in his short story “Franchise”: “In the future, computational science will be able to make important predictions if computers are given the necessary data. Therefore, in presidential elections… it will only be necessary to look into the perceptions of a single person to deduce what the end result would be if an entire country were to vote.” Something similar to this is what Nate Silver did when his prediction about Mr. Obama´s re-election in 2012 was surprisingly accurate.
The future will never be here in this moment but our reality will seem closer and closer to our grandparents dreamt about and feared.