Using Big Data to Spy on Foreign Threats is Just Us Doing What We’re Good At

A source in the national security world sent me some thoughts on the leaked NSA programs that are worth sharing:

Every country and every non-state actor is going to exploit the digital technology revolution to its advantage in ways that leverage its own unique strengths. Al Qaeda uses web sites and chat rooms to connect with amateur jihadists and equip them with ideas, instructions and inspiration to carry out terror attacks. China uses hackers to steal vast amounts of industrial and national security secrets. And the United States, as we now know—and indeed have known, at least generally, for several years– uses computer algorithms to troll through vast digital communication data bases to find nascent needle-in-a-haystack threats.

We are doing this because of some unique attributes we happen to have. One is that most of the leading social media and technology companies as well as internet carriers—Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint–are American. That means an outsized portion of the world’s digital communications flows through servers and routers on US soil and are therefore subject to U.S. law. Another is that in our corporations, universities, and post-9/11 intelligence bureaucracies, we have unmatched expertise in things like data mining and link analysis. We have an unparalleled ability to literally “connect the dots.”

So, what you’re seeing with these NSA leaks is that the US is leveraging what we’re good at. With the Prism program, we’re targeting foreign nationals’ social media postings and communications that span the globe via servers located here in the US. The searches being done of Verizon “metadata” is different in that these are U.S. phone records. But the thing to understand is that the system generates hundreds of millions of these call records every day and the algorithms are swimming right past those in these needle-in-a-haystack searches that, like Prism, are targeted at foreigners either living abroad or in the U.S.

So, as long as there are proper safeguards, which I think we have, then I absolutely think we should be doing this. We’d be crazy not to. It’s huge not just for stopping terrorism but for basic intel. China has just been stealing us blind; they’ve robbed Pentagon contractors of plans for whole weapons systems. The best defense we have against threats like that are these NSA programs.

I’m not sure I agree that we have the proper safeguards on these programs. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. Given the level of secrecy even about the oversight of the things, it’s hard for a layman to judge. Obama says he welcomes a debate on these programs. I do too.

But I think the larger point my source is making is vital and under-appreciated.

Our unique advantage in cyber-snooping is akin to other advantages we have as a nation—like the fact that the dollar is the world’s reserve currency (which enables us to borrow more cheaply and flexibly and to have an extra measure of influence in international institutions), or the fact that we are sitting on huge reserves of natural gas (which will help us lower both our trade deficit and greenhouse gas emissions while keeping electricity rates low enough to be newly competitive in manufacturing).

Now, environmentalists will warn about the dangers of fracking, just as conservatives will warn about the dangers of too much borrowing. And it’s wise to be mindful of both concerns and have safeguards in place to address them. Still, it would be foolish not to exploit (carefully) our natural gas reserves, just as we’d be insane not to take (careful) advantage of the dollar’s privileged position in world financial markets.

Similarly, it would be folly not to utilize the unique capacities we have in big data to spy on individuals and groups and nations that intend us and our allies harm. We should do so with maximum feasible transparency and democratic accountability. But that’s very different from the position that I sense a fair number of privacy-focused, libertarian-leaning folks on the right and left are staking out, which is that the more onerous the restrictions on government’s ability to do this kind of work, the better.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.