Ever since Edward Snowden leaked information on NSA data collection, there has been public uproar about the Federal government spying on the everyday communications of American citizens. There has been the undeniably positive aspect of creating open public discourse about the programs and some improvements/reforms/safeguards in the transparency/operations of the FISA court, for which we oddly enough owe Mr. Snowden, a wanted fugitive, some thanks. I have argued in previous posts that while Mr. Snowden’s actions were clearly illegal, it does highlight the need for an effective ombudsman office in America, something that is inexplicably lacking lacking in our otherwise modern democracy.
I have, however, also been of the same mind as intelligence officials when it comes to the importance of these data collection programs. South Park did a funny parody about data collection, highlight the narcissism and irrational egomaniac-ism (personified in one Eric Cartman) needed to actually believe the NSA is concerned with your day-to-day activities. Every week it seems a new “revelation” is leaked about data collection. Most recently, it was that the NSA creates “profiles” of persons of interest to better understand their movements:
Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.
“Metadata can be very revealing,” said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. “Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person’s cellphone is going to allow them to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It’s the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect.”
Well no shit people, do we really think the most sophisticated intelligence and security organizations in the world are relying solely on phone numbers to track people it believes are a threat to national security? Personally, such an incomplete analysis would worry me and call into question the NSAs efficacy. If the NSA believes a person is a threat, of course they will use any intelligence available to create a “picture” of what that person is doing, this is common sense. New rule of thumb; going forward anything you do online (phone calls, emails, credit card transactions, status updates, check-ins, etc.) is no longer 100% private. Don’t like it? move out into the woods and live like the Amish.
There are real concerns related to data collection. One is that private corporations are trading peoples information like some sort of digital currency. The other is that there has been relatively no fiscal debate about the C-B analysis of data collection:
Privacy advocates fear that consumers do not realize just how much of their private information is on their phones and how much is made vulnerable simply by downloading and using apps, searching the mobile Web or even just going about daily life with a phone in your pocket. And this new focus on tracking users through their devices and online habits comes against the backdrop of a spirited public debate on privacy and government surveillance.
For advertisers, intimate knowledge of users has long been the promise of mobile phones. But only now are numerous mobile advertising services that most people have never heard of — like Drawbridge, Flurry, Velti and SessionM — exploiting that knowledge, largely based on monitoring the apps we use and the places we go. This makes it ever harder for mobile users to escape the gaze of private companies, whether insurance firms or shoemakers.
Ultimately, the tech giants, whose principal business is selling advertising, stand to gain. Advertisers using the new mobile tracking methods include Ford Motor, American Express, Fidelity, Expedia, Quiznos and Groupon.
If anything, we should be focused on the legality of private data collection–which is always used–for profit, instead of public data collection–which is rarely used–for national security purposes. The extent that the government allows this to happen so it has it’s own sources of intelligence (ex: the NSA getting phone records from private cell phone companies) should also be explored / debated.
In a time of budget disagreements leading to government shutdown, it would be prudent to call into question the costs (or opportunity costs) of data collection programs (not in terms of hypothetical invasions of privacy, but in terms of dollar costs). The benefits are fairly obvious, whether you agree with the program or not. Less obvious are the costs, and what government programs we cannot afford (opportunity cost) because we have such programs:
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has leaked documents that map out a $52.6 billion budget for the NSA, CIA, and other security agencies in unprecedented detail. The Washington Post, which reviewed the documents, describes a detailed list of objectives, failures, technologies, recruiting, and other information; the apparently 178-page summary itself has not been published. An interactive chart of some of the data, however, accompanies the piece.
The Post reveals that CIA and NSA budgets have increased by over 50 percent each since 2004, with the CIA reaching $14.7 billion in 2013. Though budgets fell from 2012 levels, total funding is still almost twice what it was in 2001. The overall number is revealed each year, but these breakdowns are not included for security reasons. Among other things, the budget lays out “gaps” in counterterrorism efforts regarding Hezbollah, China’s fighter planes, and Pakistan’s nuclear program. Though it’s said to have made progress in 38 of the top 50 gaps, one chart apparently shows dismal results in addressing biological and chemical weapons gaps: intelligence agencies hoped to make progress on at least five “gaps” a year, but they managed to work on only two in 2011 and none in 2010.
$52 billion dollars is no small amount, however it constitutes only 1.47% of the Federal Governments $3.538 trillion of total expenditure for 2012. We should have a debate, not about whether these programs are needed–they are–but whether they are worth the price tag. The fact that this budget–like information on data collection itself–had to be “leaked” highlights the mistrust that is behind most of this public outrage. I think this is a modest amount considering how much we spend on defense per year (around $600 billion) close to 20% of all federal expenditure. However, this is America, we should be able to have open debates about these things, both how much these things cost and what other programs (schooling, infrastructure, healthcare, welfare etc) we cannot afford because of them. Secret budget documents seem like something the Egyptian Army would take part in, not a branch of the U.S. Federal government.
As a nation, we are focused on the wrong issues. Hypothetical invasions of privacy are a scapegoat and distract from real issues. The real issues are: a) why private companies are allowed to trade our information like a commodity, b) the lack of an ombudsman office in the U.S. government, and c) an open dialogue on C-B analysis, including the opportunity costs, of intelligence gathering programs.