NSA Outrage. Are We Really That Unaware?

The minute we happily turn on our electronic devices, we voluntarily expose ourselves. Sure, we think our emails and transactions are encrypted and unreadable, our location services are turned off, and our Facebook settings do not allow unauthorized users to see our most private thoughts. But the truth of the matter is that we all know, deep down inside, that nothing is foolproof and that there are people and bots out there capable of accessing our personal data. The NSA unfortunately did not have the class and expertise to secretly hack into systems unnoticed like the other bad guys, but instead, asked for it directly which makes it unexpected and worse in the eyes of democracy.

As an optimist, I personally think the U.S. government embracing Big Data is a good thing. Perhaps the whole NSA Prism debacle can be thought of as a New Age Search Warrant, commanding that all necessary data in the universe be collected and analyzed for the greater good. For those of you outraged by this breach in privacy, have you stood by your beliefs and terminated your Verizon cell phone service, deleted your FB account, and eliminated all email communications? My guess is no because you probably don’t actually know the extent of the NSA violation and the digital world is far more interesting than personal privacy. So before you go out protesting or draw conclusions based on the Patriot Act, read this interview with Technology Evangelist and Big Data influencer Theo Priestley to understand exactly how much power Prism holds with your personal data.


1.  What sources of data has the NSA secured in Prism without our consent? And how is this different from corporations and data brokers misusing our personal data?

I think it’s well reported now just how much data the NSA has been gathering, but to summarize it’s basically any electronic interaction online that leaves a digital footprint – email, voice chat, videos, photos, VOIP chats, file transfers, social networking, even notification of when you log in and off websites and providers. That’s a staggering amount of information from a large base of sources to tap into.

The extent of surveillance has perhaps been the biggest shock to people, and of those organizations who are complicit in supplying the data (for example, it has been revealed that Skype has supplied information despite claiming all calls are encrypted).  But to be honest, this shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise given what we agree to give away information on a daily basis to other corporations. The public can’t be that naive.  For example, supermarket loyalty cards gather huge amounts of information about our personal habits through our buying patterns. They analyze this information and send us offers based on what they’ve found. It’s not a sinister use of our data, but it highlights what we’re prepared to give away and the sacrifice of privacy for the sake of consumerism and convenience. And is it really misuse when we blindly accept the terms and conditions for joining a new website, or app or loyalty scheme? How many of us actually read these before accepting to use a new service? It’s a very small percentage and I’m guilty of it too, so why shouldn’t an organization take advantage of that ignorance. People should be more vigilant about their privacy and data but at the same time businesses should be more transparent. There’s a lot of work to be done here still.


Chart above shows that businesses are quietly collecting data on consumers to better position advertising and to inform their business strategies.

2.  What Big Data technology is supporting Prism?

The NSA built Accumulo which is a database design based on Google Big Table. Written in Java, the NSA contributed Accumulo to the Apache Foundation and in 2012 it was promoted from incubation to a top-level project. Right now, they are harvesting petabytes of data in Accumulo, a staggering amount that grows daily. But the cleverest part of all of this is in the analytics – Accumulo extended the Big Table concept to analyze trillions of points in data in order to create intelligence that can detect the connections between those points and the strength of those connections. It’s in the strength of a connection that they can tell whether there’s something more to investigate.

3.  What personal questions can the government now ask about me and find the answer to?

Whatever you put into the digital domain is what they’ll be able to get out basically. But to be honest, they’re not interested in people like you and me. Like I said, it’s in the strength of the analysis of the connections in order to detect abnormal behavior that they’re interested in most. 99.9% of the people are extremely mundane and unimportant no matter what ego we place on ourselves.

4.  I’ve read several articles on how Prism isn’t actually effective in quickly detecting terrorist activity so collecting all of this information and invading our privacy is pointless. Terrorism is extremely rare so the probability that an individual under surveillance (and now everyone is under surveillance) is also a terrorist is also extremely low. Can you explain?

Well according to reports, the NSA analyzed less than 300 phones in 2012 and stopped terrorist plots in more than 20 countries with the intelligence gathered by PRISM so something is working. We have to bare in mind that there is far more going on in the World than what we are made aware of and not all forms of terrorism are obvious, just the ones that make the headlines. Having said that, and examining the techniques and intelligence behind PRISM you could argue that the NSA is missing a trick with deeper predictive analytics. For example, Microsoft has done some exploratory work with Technion (the Institute of Technology in Israel) in which they used previous history to correlate and predict future events. Clearly something like the airline crash in SFO recently can’t accurately be pinpointed but political unrest and terrorist activity could be. If the NSA were to adopt a similar approach, they could in theory go one step further from detection to prediction. That’s when things could get very interesting, but as Tanya Cordrey from The Guardian said when I asked the same question, “It’s very Minority Report.”

5.  With Big Data in general there is a tradeoff between privacy and new insights that can found to transform business and lives. With Prism, the trade-off is between civil liberties and public safety. I do believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We should not lose sight of the advantages Big Data has in ultimately providing the world more freedom and a better quality of life. Can you comment on this?

I believe transparency is the key here. If the government and corporations are up front and honest about just what they do with the information we give them then like a tap we have the choice to turn on and off what we give them with the same simplicity. It’s no secret that Facebook doesn’t actually delete anything when you request it to, or close your own account – it’s persistent. That’s not transparent to me and we need to move away from this and become more open about what it is we do and how we collect it. We generate huge amounts of personal data, not just from online interaction, but also in everything we do; even switching on a light indicates an interaction that can be measured and energy usage tracked. The self-quantification movement allows consumers to live better, be more efficient, be healthier and there’s no reason why it can’t be extended across all facets of our lives. What I see is a rise of personal analytics to make sense of it all for our own use, platforms similar to those used by corporations but on a consumer level. They make use of the information so why can’t we ?

More from Theo Priestley on privacy:

About the Author: Mona Patel