I’m at the Engaging Data 2013 conference where Noam Chomsky and Pulitzer Prize winner (twice!) Barton Gellman are going to talk about Big Data in the Snowden Age, moderated by Ludwig Siegele of the Economist. (Gellman is one of the three people Snowden vouchsafed his documents with.) The conference aims at having us rethink how we use Big Data and how it’s used. NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
LS: Prof. Chomsky, what’s your next book about?
NC: Philosophy of mind and language. I’ve been writing articles that are pretty skeptical about Big Data. [Please read the orange disclaimer: I'm paraphrasing and making errors of every sort.]
LS: You’ve said that Big Data is for people who want to do the easy stuff. But shouldn’t you be thrilled as a linguist?
NC: When I got to MIT at 1955, I was hired to work on a machine translation program. But I refused to work on it. “The only way to deal with machine translation at the current stage of understanding was by brute force, which after 30-40 years is how it’s being done.” A principled understanding based on human cognition is far off. Machine translation is useful but you learn precisely nothing about human thought, cognition, language, anything else from it. I use the Internet. Glad to have it. It’s easier to push some buttons on your desk than to walk across the street to use the library. But the transition from no libraries to libraries was vastly greater than the transition from libraries to Internet. [Cool idea and great phrase! But I think I disagree. It depends.] We can find lots of data; the problem is understanding it. And a lot of data around us go through a filter so it doesn’t reach us. E.g., the foreign press reports that Wikileaks released a chapter about the secret TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership). It was front page news in Australia and Europe. You can learn about it on the Net but it’s not news. The chapter was on Intellectual Property rights, which means higher prices for less access to pharmaceuticals, and rams through what SOPA tried to do, restricting use of the Net and access to data.
LS: For you Big Data is useless?
NC: Big data is very useful. If you want to find out about biology, e.g. But why no news about TPP? As Sam Huntington said, power remains strongest in the dark. [approximate] We should be aware of the long history of surveillance.
LS: Bart, as a journalist what do you make of Big Data?
BG: It’s extraordinarily valuable, especially in combination with shoe-leather, person-to-person reporting. E.g., a colleague used traditional reporting skills to get the entire data set of applicants for presidential pardons. Took a sample. More reporting. Used standard analytics techniques to find that white people are 4x more likely to get pardons, that campaign contributors are also more likely. It would be likely in urban planning [which is Senseable City Labs' remit]. But all this leads to more surveillance. E.g., I could make the case that if I had full data about everyone’s calls, I could do some significant reporting, but that wouldn’t justify it. We’ve failed to have the debate we need because of the claim of secrecy by the institutions in power. We become more transparent to the gov’t and to commercial entities while they become more opaque to us.
LS: Does the availability of Big Data and the Internet automatically mean we’ll get surveillance? Were you surprised by the Snowden revelations?
NC: I was surprised at the scale, but it’s been going on for 100 years. We need to read history. E.g., the counter-insurgency “pacification” of the Philippines by the US. See the book by McCoy [maybe this. The operation used the most sophisticated tech at the time to get info about the population to control and undermine them. That tech was immediately used by the US and Britain to control their own populations, .g., Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare. Any system of power — the state, Google, Amazon — will use the best available tech to control, dominate, and maximize their power. And they’ll want to do it in secret. Assange, Snowden and Manning, and Ellsberg before them, are doing the duty of citizens.
BG: I’m surprised how far you can get into this discussion without assuming bad faith on the part of the government. For the most part what’s happening is that these security institutions genuinely believe most of the time that what they’re doing is protecting us from big threats that we don’t understand. The opposition comes when they don’t want you to know what they’re doing because they’re afraid you’d call it off if you knew. Keith Alexander said that he wishes that he could bring all Americans into this huddle, but then all the bad guys would know. True, but he’s also worried that we won’t like the plays he’s calling.
LS: Bruce Schneier says that the NSA is copying what Google and Yahoo, etc. are doing. If the tech leads to snooping, what can we do about it?
NC: Govts have been doing this for a century, using the best tech they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe these are universals. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications.
BG: The capacity to rationalize may be universal, but you’ll take the conversation off track if you compare what’s happening here to the Stasi. The Stasi were blackmailing people, jailing them, preventing dissent. As a journalist I’d be very happy to find that our govt is spying on NGOs or using this power for corrupt self-enriching purposes.
NC: I completely agree with that, but that’s not the point: The same appeal is made in the most monstrous of circumstances. The freedom we’ve won sharply restricts state power to control and dominate, but they’ll do whatever they can, and they’ll use the same appeals that monstrous systems do.
LS: Aren’t we all complicit? We use the same tech. E.g., Prof. Chomsky, you’re the father of natural language processing, which is used by the NSA.
NC: We’re more complicit because we let them do it. In this country we’re very free, so we have more responsibility to try to control our govt. If we do not expose the plea of security and separate out the parts that might be valid from the vast amount that’s not valid, then we’re complicit because we have the oppty and the freedom.
LS: Does it bug you that the NSA uses your research?
NC: To some extent, but you can’t control that. Systems of power will use whatever is available to them. E.g., they use the Internet, much of which was developed right here at MIT by scientists who wanted to communicate freely. You can’t prevent the powers from using it for bad goals.
BG: Yes, if you use a free online service, you’re the product. But if you use a for-pay service, you’re still the product. My phone tracks me and my social network. I’m paying Verizon about $1,000/year for the service, and VZ is now collecting and selling my info. The NSA couldn’t do its job as well if the commercial entities weren’t collecting and selling personal data. The NSA has been tapping into the links between their data centers. Google is racing to fix this, but a cynical way of putting this is that Google is saying “No one gets to spy on our customers except us.”
LS: Is there a way to solve this?
BG: I have great faith that transparency will enable the development of good policy. The more we know, the more we can design policies to keep power in place. Before this, you couldn’t shop for privacy. Now a free market for privacy is developing as the providers now are telling us more about what they’re doing. Transparency allows legislation and regulation to be debated. The House Repubs came within 8 votes of prohibiting call data collection, which would have been unthinkable before Snowden. And there’s hope in the judiciary.
NC: We can do much more than transparency. We can make use of the available info to prevent surveillance. E.g., we can demand the defeat of TPP. And now hardware in computers is being designed to detect your every keystroke, leading some Americans to be wary of Chinese-made computers, but the US manufacturers are probably doing it better. And manufacturers for years have been trying to dsign fly-sized drones to collect info; that’ll be around soon. Drones are a perfect device for terrorists. We can learn about this and do something about it. We don’t have to wait until it’s exposed by Wikileaks. It’s right there in mainstream journals.
LS: Are you calling for a political movement?
NC: Yes. We’re going to need mass action.
BG: A few months ago I noticed a small gray box with an EPA logo on it outside my apartment in NYC. It monitors energy usage, useful to preventing brown outs. But it measures down to the apartment level, which could be useful to the police trying to establish your personal patterns. There’s no legislation or judicial review of the use of this data. We can’t turn back the clock. We can try to draw boundaries, and then have sufficient openness so that we can tell if they’ve crossed those boundaries.
LS: Bart, how do you manage the flow of info from Snowden?
BG: Snowden does not manage the release of the data. He gave it to three journalists and asked us to use your best judgment — he asked us to correct for his bias about what the most important stories are — and to avoid direct damage to security. The documents are difficult. They’re often incomplete and can be hard to interpret.
Q: What would be a first step in forming a popular movement?
NC: Same as always. E.g., the women’s movement began in the 1960s (at least in the modern movement) with consciousness-raising groups.
Q: Where do we draw the line between transparency and privacy, given that we have real enemies?
BG: First you have to acknowledge that there is a line. There are dangerous people who want to do dangerous things, and some of these tools are helpful in preventing that. I’ve been looking for stories that elucidate big policy decisions without giving away specifics that would harm legitimate action.
Q: Have you changed the tools you use?
BG: Yes. I keep notes encrypted. I’ve learn to use the tools for anonymous communication. But I can’t go off the grid and be a journalist, so I’ve accepted certain trade-offs. I’m working much less efficiently than I used to. E.g., I sometimes use computers that have never touched the Net.
Q: In the women’s movement, at least 50% of the population stood to benefit. But probably a large majority of today’s population would exchange their freedom for convenience.
NC: The trade-off is presented as being for security. But if you read the documents, the security issue is how to keep the govt secure from its citizens. E.g., Ellsberg kept a volume of the Pentagon Papers secret to avoid affecting the Vietnam negotiations, although I thought the volume really only would have embarrassed the govt. Security is in fact not a high priority for govts. The US govt is now involved in the greatest global terrorist campaign that has ever been carried out: the drone campaign. Large regions of the world are now being terrorized. If you don’t know if the guy across the street is about to be blown away, along with everyone around, you’re terrorized. Every time you kill an Al Qaeda terrorist, you create 40 more. It’s just not a concern to the govt. In 1950, the US had incomparable security; there was only one potential threat: the creation of ICBM’s with nuclear warheads. We could have entered into a treaty with Russia to ban them. See McGeorge Bundy’s history. It says that he was unable to find a single paper, even a draft, suggesting that we do something to try to ban this threat of total instantaneous destruction. E.g., Reagan tested Russian nuclear defenses that could have led to horrible consequences. Those are the real security threats. And it’s true not just of the United States.