Did anyone expect Big Government to ignore Big Data?

7 June 2013 by Steve Blum

When bits and wrangling were real.

Phone records, email, file transfers, social networks, VoIP, chat and, apparently, credit card transactions. All this data and more, from and to potentially anyone in the U.S., it is said, is passing through federal government filters in pursuit of foreign terrorists.

In one respect this week’s revelations, to whatever extent true, come as no surprise. The National Security Agency, or any other intelligence organisation, is naturally inclined to lust after any massive source of data, and big telecoms, information technology and financial companies are just that. With post–9/11 security legislation – the creation of a homeland security department and passage of the soi-disant Patriot Act are but two examples – the authority of government agencies to dip a paw into the cyber honey jar has only grown. The tools to do so are a given. What one computer can generate, another can crunch, at least given the resources that hundreds of billions of dollars can buy.

Thirty years ago, we believed that the birth of microcomputers was the death knell for Big Brother. Within ten years, though, those isolated, independent and untouchable machines were being weaved together by the Internet. Samizdat technology might have brought down the Berlin Wall, but like the passengers on Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit when they learned of their likely fate, other totalitarian states – notably China – went on the attack. Virtually.

And it seems, so did democratic governments. The differences are that Chinese leaders don’t work as hard at hiding what they’re doing, and most of their efforts are directed at their own people.

I still believe the U.S. government is primarily focused on foreign threats (such as Chinese Army hackers that are pursuing, um, foreign threats?). But the temptation to use big data to police the governed is huge, and as the IRS’s targeting of politically unwelcome groups shows, sometimes irresistible.

We can’t simply trust governments, democratic or not, to exercise self restraint. As Ronald Reagan said of another totalitarian regime, we must also verify.