Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Do The Math

As I pointed out yesterday (scroll down to "Tautological..."), the current regime claims that the NSA domestic spying program based on call records from the telephone companies is legal because the current regime says it's legal. Even assuming such a claim is accurate, there still remains the question of whether the program is effective. An op-ed piece in today's NY Times suggests that the program as described is not when it comes to the Global War on Terror.

NEWS that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth gave customer records to the National Security Agency has set off a heated debate over the intricacies of espionage law. But legal or not, this sort of spying program probably isn't worth infringing our civil liberties for — because it's very unlikely that the type of information one can glean from it will help us win the war on terrorism.

If the program is along the lines described by USA Today — with the security agency receiving complete lists of who called whom from each of the phone companies — the object is probably to collect data and draw a chart, with dots or "nodes" representing individuals and lines between nodes if one person has called another.

...But without additional data, its reach is limited: as any mathematician will admit, even when you know everyone in the graph is a terrorist, it doesn't directly portray information about the order or hierarchy of the cell. Social network researchers look instead for graph features like "centrality": they try to identify nodes that are connected to a lot of other nodes, like spokes around the hub of a bicycle wheel.

...A second problem with the spy agency's apparent methodology lies in the way terrorist groups operate and what scientists call the "strength of weak ties." As the military scientist Robert Spulak has described it to me, you might not see your college roommate for 10 years, but if he were to call you up and ask to stay in your apartment, you'd let him. This is the principle under which sleeper cells operate: there is no communication for years. Thus for the most dangerous threats, the links between nodes that the agency is looking for simply might not exist.
[Emphasis added]

So much for the efficacy of the program, at least if it is intended as a tool in the arsenal of terrorism prevention.

But what if even the NSA has figured this out and has had it figured it out all along? Why continue the program? There are probably a list of answers suggested by the article, but three come immediately to mind.

First, the collection of such data suggests that the regime is actually doing something to protect us. The program is evidence that there are people actively engaged in trying to root out the terrorists among us. Looking busy is at least something, according to this answer.

Second, the existence of such a program tests just how much the American public will put up with before turning the rascals out. In other words, the regime does it just to see if it can. This answer suggests the third.

Third, and perhaps most chilling, the program was never really intended to be about the Global War on Terrorism, but rather about building a huge data base on Americans that will strip away even the most minimal of privacy rights. The government will know everything there is to know about its citizens and will use that information to control them.

Hopefully this Congress will finally get the message and push back fast and hard against the Emperor and his minions. If it doesn't, the next one better.


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