Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The snooping search engine

Search engine technology is what has happened to snooping. Echelon was just a giant tape recorder with the ability to identify certain key words. When a key word was detected, the system got a 'hit', with some kind of follow-up action indicated. The problem was too much information causing too many hits, making any useful sorting of false positives practically impossible. Algorithms from a company like Google (maybe exactly like Google, which may explain its success) could be used to make the process workable, with electronic snooping becoming like a search engine. Google tests relevance of search results with respect to a specific site by checking the relevance of links to that site, and checks the relevance of each such link by checking its links, and so on. If higher-rated sites link to you, then you move up in the search results.

If I say the words 'bomb' and 'movie theater', I'm probably talking about 'King Kong'. These words would make me a link, and the person I was communicating with would also become a link. The relevance of my words, and my ranking in the Echelon search engine, will depend on what my link is up to. If he is in a group which also uses the words 'bomb' and 'movie theater', I suddenly become more interesting. If some of the guys in the group are living in Pakistan and also talking about high explosives, I become real interesting. The search could be refined by then doing the advanced search of 'bomb' AND 'movie theater' BUT NOT 'King Kong'. Echelon goes from being a dumb tape recorder to becoming an active search engine for terrorism.

This system will obviously still not work, as the real terrorists don't use insecure communication lines to discuss their plans so obviously, but it is fun to snoop and is making someone a shitload of money, so it continues. The problem with the search engine model from a civil liberties point of view is that it requires the constant spidering that we see on the internet. Once I say the key words, the person I'm talking to has to be the subject of a full search, along with all the people he is talking to, and so on. This has to be done instantaneously and automatically in order to create the nexus out of which interesting data might be mined. Obviously, it is impossible to obtain FISA warrants for all these searches, so the process is intrinsically incompatible with any form of privacy rights.

The NYT framing of the matter as a wiretapping problem seems to be an attempt to allow the Bush Administration to depict it as merely the taping of conversations between foreign terrorists and their operatives in the United States. Who could object to that? After all the other crap justified on the basis of the 'war on terror' and swallowed whole by Americans - Guantanamo Bay, enemy combatants, torture, rounding up of innocent Arabs, the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act - the Bush Administration seems blindsided by the negative reaction to this latest outrage. Why the difference? The average American, not in a gang and not consorting with shady types, doesn't identify with the Jose Padillas of the world. He can't conceive how Padilla's problems could impinge on his life. Snooping is entirely different. Any communication is now subject to being monitored by some NSA dweeb with a giant set of headphones, and this is a direct affront to the privacy of every American. To make it worse, there is no way you will ever know whether you are being listened to, and no change in behavior that would make you immune from surveillance. The phony 'war on terror' has finally hit home.