“No, sir,” came Clapper’s response. “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
In light of the PRISM and Verizon revelations, critics have seized on these remarks as evidence of the agency’s duplicity. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, the intelligence community uses a different definition of “collect” than other humans do, holding that it refers to the act of actively processing materials rather than, you know, collecting them.
“This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions,” a frustrated Wyden said this past week. (Nor is it always possible in these things to simply pretend it’s Opposite Day. Under federal law, “content” includes details such as e-mail subject lines. But the NSA has held that it isn’t parsing “content” when it evaluates the subject lines of e-mails it has collected. Or is that “collected”?)
In the high-tech and business worlds, big data is all upside and potential. Data on a giant scale exposes truths hidden in smaller sets. But in the policy realm, when big data is discussed at all, the conversation tends to focus on angst over personal privacy — and whether big data is a major threat.
That’s a limited view of what’s at stake. The government would have a strong self-interest in knowing, for instance, whether some small slice of the 1.1 billion Facebook users was discussing a coup, even if it couldn’t pinpoint the planners. That would be particularly true if, at the same time, it saw an upswing in people pulling up Google Maps images of the Ellipse across from the White House. Patterns are powerful.
Obama has sought to dismiss “the hype that we’ve been hearing,” as he put it, about the NSA’s data-crunching efforts by arguing that they’re complex answers to national security challenges — and ones that Congress has been fully briefed on. But there’s much to discuss about the nature of PRISM and similar programs before we get into the security nitty-gritty. And if it’s a complicated discussion, all the evidence suggests that it isn’t one that Congress is well equipped to have on its own.
What else should that discussion cover? There’s what the intelligence world calls the “mosaic effect” — when a nugget of data that is insignificant on its own takes on new meaning when combined with other bits of information. The White House warned of the risks of this effect in a new set of open-data rules it unveiled last month. There’s what big data means for the relationship between the government and large tech firms; beyond PRISM, for instance, the White House relies on data held by Google and Facebook to line up participants in its frequent online hangouts and chats. And then there’s what it means to be truly informed about what rights we’re giving away to the government — the end-user terms of service, in other words, for big data programs.
Old frameworks take us only so far. “The Constitutional text provides us with the general principle that we aren’t subject to unreasonable searches by the government,” wrote yet another former University of Chicago law professor. “It can’t tell us the Founders’ specific views on the reasonableness of an NSA computer data-mining operation.” That was Sen. Barack Obama in “The Audacity of Hope,” not long before entering the White House.
In his “military-industrial complex” speech in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people that “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” He said, “It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system, ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”
More than 50 years later, the task of the modern statesman and stateswoman is to engage the public in the work of integrating the old and the new.
And if they don’t, well, see you on the Internet.
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about privacy
Please, President Obama. Not another ‘national conversation.’
Obama, the loner president
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