Monday, June 17, 2013

Paul Revere, Matrix Math, and the NSA

There is a lot to say about the goings on with the NSA. Tough part is; what you really need to know will never make it - I hope - in to open source. Either good or bad from a personal liberty point-of-view, the answers are there - but odds are somewhere in the neighborhood of 312 million of us are not read in to the program, so we won't know.

That should be fine; as we have a system designed to check that for us.

We have a system of checks and balances, thankfully, that will as much as human institutions can, try to make it right, keep it right, and correct if needed. We have a revolutionary Constitution, thankfully, that has a bias towards liberty; one part of that is the 4th Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I have faith in our little experiment in self-government, hopefully most others do too.

It is helpful to remember that our system of government was designed specifically to protect the people from the depredations of human nature - specifically the lust for power - that caused so many previous republics to fall. The Founders knew what they were doing, and knew the nasty bits of human nature they and the future would be dealing with.

They knew that from time to time lines would be approached, walked on, and crossed over. As a result, they gave us all the tools we need to self-correct. If in this case self-correction is needed, time will tell.

Until then, let's look at one bit of lame excuse making, lazy reporting, and simple, "It makes my brain hurt, let's talk about Hilliary's twitter account instead." that have besotted the information sphere since the NSA issue broke.

One of my least favorite bits was the, "it was only meta-data, it wasn't like ....".

That obviously is an excuse made by those who never took graduate level mathematics. I remember well one of the most flop-sweat inducing parts of grad school - that was a semester of math I have tried to clear from my mind. I don't even know what the course was called, I just remember "matrix math." I spent half the semester having no idea what I was doing; I just followed examples and did tons of problems so I could get through it by simple rote memory. I really had no idea what I was doing or why - and it terrified me.

Then one day, it all clicked. I got it - and why it was so powerful - and there we have a mixing on a grad-school nightmare and the NSA scandal ... for me. 

A big thanks to Kieran Healy for bringing that merger together with the fascinating post, "Using Metadata to find Paul Revere."
I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relational manner.
You really need to read it all, and then ask yourself - did the Founders inject a critical flaw or critical feature in our system? Was it designed to allow subversives room to maneouver? To hide their tracks? For subversive thought and groups to operate with relative ease?

Well, of course they did. That extra bit of chaotic and dangerous freedom is what also allows us to have all the fun and harmless freedoms. The safest people without worry in the world are slaves.

In a way, Kieran's article lets you know why some parts of our Constitution are designed the way they are - specifically the Bill of Rights.

Throughout its design, our Founders not only built firewalls and firebreaks, but they also built warning signs. They knew, because they were students of history, that there will always be people and movements that will strive for more and more power. As power is a zero-sum game, the only way the government can grow in power is to take it from the people. The firewalls must be breached, the firebreaks can slow progress - and the warning signs are there to alert the people, their representatives, and the courts - that something is afoot.

Of course, it takes the right people, right representatives, and the right jurists to take action. The Founders knew this too;
A Republic, if you can keep it.”
To grow in power, the State will need to violate or make meaningless one bit of the Founders' structure at a time. We have a system in place, if we use it - if it is functioning - to stop that from taking place or correcting it if that line has been crossed.

I believe our system in fits and starts still works, so I will wait for it to function. It works slowly, thankfully. We should all hope it works; the 1st Amendment should tell us in time if an attempt was made to violate the 4th Amendment. If so, the rest of the tools are in place to self-correct. We've self-corrected before, we can do it again.

All the latest scandalmania has been interesting to watch. How much of it is scandal, and how much of it is hype? Don't know ... right now; but the truth will come out.

Until then - how comfortable are you with the government's ability to have a database - if they access it now does not matter, someone else can later - that allows with a simple query to know everything about you and your relationships? Do we really want to live in a surveillance state? Does a data-soaked and video-soaked police and national security system have the ability to decrease threats? Sure, but at what price? What price freedom?

What price would you be willing to pay for freedom? Is one 9/11 strike every decade, two decades, three decades worth more freedom?

September 11, 2001 2,977 people were killed. We didn't care much for that - so in a variety of ways we went to war. We went to war for the reason we usually do - to protect our way of life. Our way of life is enabled and protected by the Constitution.

The numbers are greater when you expand the number of nations we have lost servicemembers in this war - but as a baseline, let's use the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; wars we would not have been in if not for the attacks of 9/11. That number is 6,717

You don't even want to know the number of those wounded and the amount of treasure we have spent. 

In all our wars - wars to defend our Constitution - we have lost 1,321,612 killed. That many people died so we would enjoy our freedom - not to enjoy being watched over by a surveillance state.

So, in our latest "War on Terror," are we just lashing out? Looking for vengeance? Or ... are we trying to keep the wolves at bay so we can continue to live our life our way? Maybe a bit of both?

If we throw away what makes us what we are in order to protect us from those who ... want to change us from what we are - then exactly what are we doing?

Going back to start - has our government moved too far in the direction of "security" and too far away from "liberty?" 

Are you willing to give up almost all of your privacy for a chance at a bit more security? Are you willing to take the occasional terrorist strike as the price we must pay as a free society to avoid becoming what we claim to oppose?

I think good people can argue both sides, even before the NSA part of scandalmania came out. I'm just glad we're having the conversation.


TJP said...

I think people need to realize, sir, that we will never have 100% security. To answer the question you pose, I would lean more towards increased liberty vice security. I don't believe at all that we will ever be able to prevent all attacks, but the most insidious attacks come from those who would have more power.

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