“Got kitesurfing on the mind, mixed with some search & classification tech, and a dab of political ranting”

NSA sleuthing and the importance of social networks

Posted by direwolff on May 13, 2006

Ran into an interesting article this morning on how the NSA is using its access to Americans’ telephone calls (are these the “lugs” so often referred to in “Law & Order”?), courtesy of our friendly phone companies, to map social networks.  Here’s the article, while short, it gets the basic point across.

So imagine that we could find out through people’s phone records (oh yeah, and cell phones too), everyone they called.  As the article suggests, knowing what was discussed is far less important than who’s talking to who.  Building implicit social networks is something that many services have been trying to do, but for a start-up the challenge is far greater than for the NSA and it’s “we have ways of making you talk” methods for getting the phone call records from the telcos.  Companies like Spoke do this for corporations where they let their employees’ e-mails get processed for just such type of relationships.  Others like ZoomInfo work on putting together implicit bios on people from sucking in the various press releases, news articles, and Web site company bios about them.  With services like LinkedIn or one that I recall Alacra offering that mapped executives’ corporate affiliations and board seats, you can really start getting a good sense for the corporate relationship landscape.  Of course none of this does anything to address mapping the “masses”, and certainly nothing quite like the phone logs.

OK, so where am I going with this?  Something about this feels like a more invasive privacy violation than someone getting a hold of my credit card information and purchase history.  Explicit links are one thing, but when we get to implicit it raises several other issues.  These are currently being raised and debated in the context of, but also need to be looked at in this latest NSA context.  At what point will people’s information be held to a higher standard, to a private standard.  Has the idea of privacy really lost all meaning under the directive of the war on terror (someone please explain how one can be at war with “a state of intense fear”…and they say that English is our country’s national language, but I digress).

Now if we take a counter position here for a moment, the extent of the abuses that we’ve been experiencing in corporations and government (some times being one and the same) lately, which I do believe have greatly surpassed those of previous decades (part of our culture of breaking world records I guess) both in scope and in damage, this really starts to support the idea that we need a way to understand who knows whom both in government and in corporations.  If to at least stem the payola abuses between corporate lobbyists and government officials.  The Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay fiasco certainly points to how lobbyists and charities were even used in quite an elaborate scheme.  But when you go below the surface and start to see who knew who, you really get a good picture for how incestuous and insular the group involved in these fraudulent activities were.  You also get a good picture of how and why those involved were involved and how they knew each other.

So the question of privacy here really comes with a double-edged sword, of which both sides are strongly defendable.  What also occurs to me is that those often making the laws are the ones who violate them the most aggregiously and for whom these laws really need apply.  Call it the cost of going into “public” life.  The NSA knowing my social network won’t really do much for them given that I have no inclination for power nor for any nefarious activities.  But them knowing Tom DeLay’s social network could unearth more crimes than we could prosecute him for in his lifetime.  The funny thing is that he has already shown the power to have judges and evidence removed  from his case, so will any of these NSA actions really ever affect him?

Given that government officials are held to higher standards (by their own doing and arrogance most often) and corporate chieftains of public companies are now making significant sums of money and positioning themselves as part of the public trust, then it’s probably right that these folks be subjected to the social network mapping exercise, while leaving the “hoi polloi” to go about its private business privately.  Or at worse case, people should only have this sort of intrusion occur if they’re suspected of committing a crime, but not as a matter or policy as it appears to be happening with these NSA exercises.  It’s really very interesting to see that in our country where the cries of privacy and freedom are loudly pronounced and bandied around like they’re part of the common sense of living here, we now live in a place that ‘s closely reminiscent of what we were told was happening in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.  It was all the rage to talk about how the Soviets were spying on their own and no one was free to say anything against the government for fear of retribution.  They weren’t free was the mantra espoused in this country at the time.  Well, who’s not free now?  If you follow the progression of these violations you can start to see how the current investigations into government “whistle blowers” tied to mapping of their social networks could start to get a lot of people in trouble for doing the right thing…and yes, then we could never say anything derogatory against our government either…but I digress.

With that I’ll end my rant :-)


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