I am reasonably convinced that all my communication, be it phone calls, social media updates or emails, gets intercepted regularly. That’s not because I think I am anyone of consequence but because as a journalist I routinely use names and situations which are part of the National Security Agency’s (N.S.A). search algorithm.
Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times today, “The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.”
It is part of my profession to report and discuss many of the figures and organizations that form the core of the targets that the N.S.A. monitors. By logical extension it should mean that my data gets “vacuumed up” as the expression for the N.S.A. collection goes.
For instance, fellow journalist and dear friend Ashok Easwaran and I almost daily talk about a whole gamut of world issues on phone. These are very eclectic, no-holds-barred conversations full of names and organizations whose mention should ring up the red flag. We do that because it is part of our profession to keep up with all that is going on, to keep fresh and sharp in a world where news perishes and dies almost simultaneously.
I often joke with Ashok that those who might be hearing our conversations must wonder at the sheer range and randomness of our interests. For people like us, who have absolutely nothing to hide, it makes zero difference who is monitoring and intercepting. In fact, I have half a mind to send a monthly bill to those who might be monitoring us for unfailingly providing them with sound perspectives and considerable mirth. I frequently tell Ashok that ours is an opinion distilled from decades of having interacted firsthand with people and situations. It is not armchair by any measure.
The key to the N.S.A.’s collection is in the keywords of which I am sure they have an elaborate list. Once the data is collected and collated, keywords kick in to sift through these communications. As the Times reports human analysts step in once this initial process is done by the N.S.A.’s computers. The report also says the whole process takes a few seconds, indicating the computing power at the agency’s command.
Outside the realm of civil liberties and individual privacy questions, as a technological achievement this is quite remarkable. To be able to zero in on the relevant bits of information from trillions of pieces in a few seconds illustrates how inventive the national security state gets.
Presuming I am monitored like millions of others, I am curious to know what goes through the mind of a human analyst while going through my intercepts. What kind of patterns do they see in my communication? When they go through my browsing history are they flummoxed at the diversity of my interests from quantum mechanics to porn? Or do they think I am just a garden variety net surfer? There is no way to find out.
In broader terms, we are fast approaching a stage in human history when we will be able to tell on the basis of this massive data collection how we as a civilization think. To read the patterns from these communications is easier than it sounds because the sorting is done by supercomputers. I think it will soon be possible to predict not just planetary behavior but even country, culture, ethnicity, religion, language specific behaviors. Creating behavioral models out of this massive data is entirely possible. In a sense, it is already happening because major countries such as the United States, China, India and many others already collect data from not just their citizens but even from those with whom they interact outside.